The famous playwright, Nobel Prize winner, Oscar recipient, and social advocate, George Bernard Shaw, wrote, “Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to this country and to mankind is to bring up a family.” A close knit and stable family is a desirable but often challenging goal.
As society evolves and family systems evolve, the need for connections and ways to connect also evolve. Like a wardrobe, families are constantly changing. Like clothes, families are made up of different sizes, styles and fabrics. Families are not static but change as the members change and grow uniquely different. As stated before, there is no single right way to enhance family connections but each family needs strategies that are tailor-made and adaptable to change. A family may have children within the same age group but more often than not today’s families have children of different age groups. Unique challenges are posed to establishing both times and methods to connect as parents to our children and as children to each other. A toddler is not going to sit through long chats at the dinner table and a teenager is not going to appreciate a toddler tantrum in a public place. What is the solution? The vital ingredient is adaptability.
As stated in earlier blogs, an infant or young child, by the nature of their needs, requires much individual attention, hands on care and attachment routines. Older children and teens require activities and time directed specifically to them. It’s important to provide both in homes with differing age groups. Time to be together as a family and time to give individual attention is important to all connections. Family meal times are the best way to bring the whole family together to share time, communicate and receive nourishment. Little ones need not sit at the table the entire time. A play space, playpen or activity chair nearby with special toys reserved for meal times allows them the needed supervision along with the freedom to move and play while still observing family interactions. In this way young ones learn by observing and older children get the attention and connection they need. In mixed age families, community outings need to be planned carefully as attention spans and interests vary greatly. A back-up plan is always a necessity. A young tot's stamina for fairs, shopping, park concerts or evening events is not going to hold up to an older child’s or teenager's enthusiasm. Plan ahead for this! Have grandparents, a babysitter or even one parent take a little one home after an hour or so and before a meltdown occurs. Although adults may understand, teens often see it as embarrassing.
Family vacations and mini weekend retreats are special times for entire families to interact and connect without the pressures of ordinary routines. Adaptable pre-planning is necessary here also. The best scenario is having a familiar person or babysitter accompany the family and care for young members when long, tiring or evening activities are planned. Many hotels provide day care or babysitting services or a list of certified in-room sitters. A young child that is well rested and kept to a reasonable schedule is usually a good traveler and the rest of the family will enjoy their company and their trip.
Family times that revolve around home are ideal for mixed age families. Young ones are usually at their best in familiar surroundings where they can eat, play and nap easily. Older children will enjoy game night with snacks or dessert. Card games never go out of style so invite an older child’s friends and their families for meals, snacks or dessert and a card game. When the little ones wear down, they can nap or be put to bed by one parent while older children continue to interact.
Adaptability means that each family member gets what they need individually, and connects with other family members. Teens especially need individual time with parents. Some activities actually can build family connections while giving older children the individual attention they need. Classes or parental tutoring for cake decorating, gardening, building a playhouse, CPR or First Aid, or photography can be enjoyed by a parent and teen together and the skills learned can also be used to enhance family connections. A teen who learns the skill of cake decorating can contribute to every family celebration. This is a winning combination!
Building family connections in a home with children of mixed ages poses challenges but by adapting to family needs and with perseverance we can succeed. Our families are our most prized possessions. Author, novelist and champion of women ‘s rights, Marylin French, stressed the importance of doing this when she stated, “To nourish children and raise them against odds is in any time, any place, more valuable than to fix bolts in cars or design nuclear weapons.”