Chapter 8: Make Your Family Life Active!
When your children are grown, how will they look back on their childhood in your home?
Rearing children—besides training good behavior, imparting constructive habits, teaching respect for authority, and building strong character—is also about creating a positive environment in which your children flourish. It’s about showing that God’s way is rich, productive and fun. It’s about living a shared life of cooperation and harmony, activity and joy, one that prepares each member for the abundant life that God’s Family will relish for eternity!
God is a family, and God is love. Family is connection. It is shared experiences.
Yet in the modern world, many families find time together difficult to come by. Whereas in the past more families lived on farms, and parents and children often worked together, now one or both parents usually work outside the home. Activities, homework, errands and other responsibilities can consume additional hours in the evenings. Many families get caught up in individual pursuits and spend little to no time doing things together. “Family time,” if it occurs, is little more than people collecting in a common location and following their separate self-interests. Too many families simply don’t live as family!
There was an age when “family time” meant devoting time and attention to each other. It meant gathering at the dinner table each night—without gadgets, television, toys or the newspaper—and swapping stories, probing minds and sharing counsel. It meant engaging one another. It meant talking, touching, tickling, playing ball, walking along the creek—no earphones or smartphones—teaching children about nature. It meant playing cards and board games, telling jokes, reading books and teaching about the Creator. It meant putting the family before yourself.
You need to reclaim this kind of “family time” in your own home! Family supplies the most precious relationships we have. But weaving a family into a unified team—interdependent, mutually helping and caring for one another—doesn’t happen automatically. It takes time and effort. As parents we want to provide our children with regular experiences that help them to truly love family life. They should genuinely enjoy spending time and being together with the family. The right experiences will motivate them to build strong families of their own and, more importantly, to fully embrace their family calling from God.
Evaluate your own home. Take proactive steps to build a family life that prepares your children for that future. Make your family life active!
To build an active family life, a good starting point is to regularly share meals. This may be common sense to some, but eating together as a family has become a rarity today. There are plenty of reasons. The modern world has ushered the stay-at-home mother into the workforce. It has replaced her home-cooked meals with ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, convenience snacks, fast food, frozen dinners and take-out. Parents are working longer hours. Sports and other extracurricular activities can pull teens away in the evenings. Kids have grown used to foraging to satiate the munchies at all hours in lieu of real meals. Many families thoughtlessly eat while gazing at a television screen. Personal technology has many family members retiring to their own worlds, even when under the same roof.
This is a terrible loss. Perhaps nothing builds the bond of family like the daily rhythm of joining together at the table. When a family breaks bread, its members are nourished not just by the food but also by the company they share.
Yes, family meals take effort. You have to prioritize them and make them happen. You have to coordinate your schedules. You have to forgo competing claims on your time and attention. And ideally, you have to procure ingredients and cook some food.
Difficult as it is, this effort will have many wonderful benefits.
For starters, a homemade family meal tends to be healthier than what you would otherwise eat. One study from the Harvard Medical School didn’t even note what kind of food they consumed, and still found that people who eat dinner with the family “most days” or “every day” are 15 percent less likely to be overweight.
But what a tremendous advantage has the family with an in-house, educated nutritionist who is also a skilled cook! A woman who devotes herself to providing food that will truly nourish her family is a priceless treasure. Can you possibly measure the benefits in foregone sickness, increased energy, improved health?
And the nutritional benefits are only a starting point. Even amid the busyness of your day-to-day routine, your evening meal in particular should be a welcome coming together of family members. This creates a sense of connection and belonging, of emotional grounding and balance, that can stabilize the lives of all members, particularly the younger ones.
This value is measurable. One Columbia University study found that teens in families that almost never eat together are 72 percent likelier than the average teen to use illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. Those who eat dinner with their parents fewer than three times a week are likelier to smoke and drink than those who eat with their parents six times a week.
Clearly there is a great blessing in how family meals enable parents to get involved with their children and build a strong bond that children can lean on for the rest of their lives.
Do everything you can to sit down together, as a family, for dinner—and even breakfast—every day you possibly can. It can work wonders in building closeness. Even making a short 20 to 30 minutes together a regular—preferably daily—occurrence can make a huge difference.
The Most Important Ingredient
If a family dinner is the most important meal of the day, what is the most important ingredient at that dinner? Love. As Proverbs 15:17 says, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (rsv). Even a meager dinner is enjoyable when it comes with loving company.
Far too many families, if they do eat together, do so in front of a television, with hardly a word exchanged. When both parents go to work and children go to school, dinnertime provides a much-needed opportunity for the whole family to gather and converse about the day. It is your chance to connect, to share, to listen, to laugh, to strengthen bonds of unity and love. It’s an occasion for your spouse and children to each see that he or she is a part of something bigger and greater.
It is also a chance to grow in conversational skill, and to learn to give and contribute to a lively discussion. Come to the table with interesting, useful topics in mind—don’t let the conversation be stale or stilted. Encourage your children to come to dinner with some points of discussion at the ready: a joke, a story about something that happened during their day, a question, a current event, a point from their personal Bible study, and so on. This will help your family grow more accustomed to thinking of things they can share with the family over dinner. It will help them learn to think of others and keep the family in mind throughout the day.
While this exercise can improve your skill at conversing, it can also do something more wonderful: help you learn to enjoy each other much more. You will begin sharing yourselves more, laughing together more—even learning how to poke fun in love and to laugh at yourselves more, to not take yourselves so seriously. It can help you begin to discuss more plans and do more things together.
The family dinner represents communion. The warmth of fellowship associated with “breaking bread” is found in the New Testament. That phrase is used to represent the fellowship enjoyed by the members of the first-century Church (e.g., Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). God Himself loves “family dinners.” Our great God wants to “break bread” with us! We are God’s Family, and the Father and Son want to dine together with us. Christ tells us in this Laodicean era, “[I]f any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Sup refers to enjoying the day’s principal (or evening) meal. But it’s not just eating. Thayer’s Lexicon says it is “to share in … most intimate and blissful intercourse.” Christ comes into us and dines with us, and we with Him, in intimate and happy communion!
The Bible has some beautiful examples showing how God has always earnestly desired this special fellowship with His chosen people. After God delivered Israel from captivity in Egypt, He brought them to Sinai and gave them His law (Exodus 20-23), then sealed His marriage covenant with Israel (Exodus 24:3-8). What did He do next? He hosted something like a marriage supper for 74 of the leaders of Israel. “And they saw [a vision of] the God of Israel …. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink” (verses 9-11). This feast that accompanied the confirmation of the Old Covenant points us forward in prophecy to that spectacular meal we will enjoy with our Husband at the consummation of the New Covenant: “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
So savor those family dinners! There’s quite an exciting vision wrapped up in them. Make them a vital part of your family life.
The most important of these family dinners are those you have on the Sabbath. The Friday evening meal going into the Sabbath provides a uniquely wonderful opportunity. God tells us the Sabbath should be a delight (Isaiah 58:13). Doing your best to make Friday evening the most special meal of the week can really help to make it just that. It becomes something the whole family looks forward to throughout the week. And that meal sets everything up beautifully for the whole Sabbath.
Set the table in a special way, perhaps setting up some decorations for a centerpiece, placing nice napkins in a lovely fold. Wear nicer clothes; put on soothing, fine music; light candles. Savor the meal. Keep the fellowship Sabbath-quality. Have dessert.
All these specialties become even more special when you forgo those indulgences throughout the week. If you simplify your diet and avoid the sweets the rest of the time, then the opportunity to enjoy something more sumptuous is a genuine treat.
The Sabbath pictures the abundant life of the World Tomorrow. It is like a mini-Feast of Tabernacles at the end of every week. So it is very appropriate to make your Sabbath meals more Feast-like. God builds this natural rhythm into our lives that keeps the millennial vision alive.
The changes need not be elaborate—even to small children, an ordinary meal can become extraordinary just by lighting a candle. But, coupled with the small amount of deprivation through the week, they can have a wonderful effect, not just on the kids, but also on the parents: It really can help you look forward to the Sabbath all week.
Yet another benefit—not just of nice Sabbath meals but of all family dinners—is that it gives you the opportunity to teach your children, by training and by example, to eat properly. The need is certainly great. Just watch schoolchildren eat among themselves, or even with adults present: They tend to engage in some pretty unrefined behavior. Manners at the table are a small but significant part of politeness, respectability and civility. Children—and adults—need the reinforcement of good table manners that can occur only when a family eats together regularly. And when you make your Sabbath meal more formal, your children have regular practice at feeling comfortable dining in a more refined setting.
A Family Sabbath
Speaking of the Sabbath, what is it like each week in your home? What do your children think of the Sabbath? Is it really a “delight”? With Dad home and Mom less busy, the Sabbath does give a unique opportunity for family time. Still, it requires effort to make it a real delight for your whole family.
Perhaps you feel you don’t have as much family time as you would like on the Sabbath. Can you remedy this? Are there tasks you find taking up time on the Sabbath each week that you could do beforehand? On Thursday evening or before Friday sunset, try assembling the things you’ll take to services, getting your clothes ironed and shoes polished, making plans for Saturday evening—any of those details that would eat into God’s holy time. This can even be a time to teach your children. As they clean their rooms on Friday or do other chores, help them understand they are preparing for God’s Sabbath, which is special time when we don’t work.
Now, how to make best use of your time together as a whole family? We’re to refrain from finding our own pleasures on the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13). How can we ensure that this holy time isn’t just a day of “thou shalt nots”? How can we make it the highlight of the week for us and our children?
We are to teach our children on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 6:7). During the week, plan active Sabbath-learning situations, matched to your children’s ages. Get a biblical coloring book, and color and talk about the content of the page. A Bible story book with pictures can be a great teaching tool; read portions of The Bible Story. Play a Bible trivia game, use Bible flash cards, play a word game like Scrabble using only biblical words. Have a family Bible study—perhaps explain a proverb to your children, or read about a hero in the Bible. As your children age, those studies can become more and more important, addressing the issues they are dealing with in their lives. Use a Sabbath morning walk as a teaching time, talking about creation with your children. Hold “Prince and Princess School,” teaching manners and etiquette and talking about being God’s royalty.
With some imagination, you can even find ways to use productively the time in the car ride to services. At services, as they are capable, teach your children to listen and take notes; buying them their own Bible and a special notebook may help them value the opportunity more. Praise them for their progress. After services, involve them in your conversations from time to time—that too can be instructive for them. And, where possible, go out of your way to provide opportunities for them to spend time with children their age in the Church.
The point is, the Sabbath offers the privilege—and the responsibility—to be involved with our children and family in a unique way. Make it positive and uplifting—a time of blessings—a day of extra opportunities, not missed opportunities. Teach your family to love the Sabbath! If we put forth the effort to make each Sabbath special, God will bless that, and it will be a delight for the whole family.
Other Time at Home
How much time does your family spend together in the evenings? It is easy, given fatigue after a workday, to want to retire and withdraw. After dinner, you may be tempted to check your e-mail or flip on the tv. Spend this time instead with the family. The evening hours are precious. Make the best use of them that you can.
Connect with your children. Play with them; teach them; help them. Learn what they have been up to. Talk about what they are learning and doing at school. Help them with homework; stay actively involved in their education. Children’s academic success strongly correlates with their parents’ involvement. In fact, studies have shown that the more time that young people spend with parents—not just at meals and with homework or reading, but even at leisure activities away from home like picnics and sports—the better their grades tend to be.
Discuss progress on goals for each child and for the whole family.
Conversation is crucial for the members of a family to get to know each other. Know your children, and be sure they know you. They should be very comfortable talking and sharing with you. Many young people are likelier to discuss their problems and challenges with their peers than their parents. That should not be. Really listen. Learn what their attitudes and thoughts are. Know who their friends are. Be sure you really know your own children! And help them to get to know you. Share your experiences and thoughts. Talk about your work. Expand their world by sharing your own.
Perhaps you want or need to work on a project around the house. Bring your child along. Involve him or her, even if it is only to ineffectually tap a wrench against a fixture or to watch you from the porch as you mow the lawn. Where safety allows, the more involvement, the better. Bringing your daughter with you to repair the shed door will probably take you more time to finish the job, but the effect on her will be worth it.
Think of useful, constructive skills you can teach your children. Give them the opportunity to do a little more than you think they are capable of. As they age, regularly working together can be a tremendous help in teaching them a good work ethic. Show them and teach them how to embrace physical challenges, to exert themselves rigorously to get a job done—outside in the yard landscaping, inside performing home repairs. Involve the whole family in day-to-day tasks such as keeping up the yard, raking leaves, maintaining the home, washing the cars, preparing for the weekly and annual sabbaths, planning family goals. Families grow close when they are involved in projects.
Selfless parenting is key to raising grounded, successful children. “Don’t just give your family things,” author and family advocate Rebecca Hagelin wrote. “Give yourself” (30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family; emphasis added).
It is natural to get into a rut. Make a deliberate effort to break out of that. Find ways to add sparkle and life to your family life. Greet each other with a smile and a hug first thing. Take one morning to get everyone up a half hour earlier than usual and make a special breakfast together. Invest the extra energy into making your time together more joyous and fun.
Your family is like a beautiful garden. It won’t flourish by neglect, happenstance and accident. It needs plenty of diligent work, attention and care: watering, cultivating, pruning, weeding out wrong practices and habits, dressing and keeping it so it is a delight.
Do Things Together
Children should be taught and encouraged to “think family.” Ideally, the family environment should be the most enjoyable place for a child to be, the most interesting and satisfying. If it is not, then he will seek satisfaction and activity elsewhere. All children need regular activity. Parents should recognize this and work to provide the right kind of exciting, interest-filled environment for them. Rather than the child being “left to himself” (Proverbs 29:15), cut adrift, he should be able to find an outlet for his energies within the context of family. This takes time and effort, but it is crucial.
Plan joyous occasions and activities. Plan regular activities with the whole family—generally weekly at least. Special opportunities do not have to be expensive or even outside of the house—there is plenty you can do right at home.
Having a weekly routine can help. One excellent practice is to schedule a weekly family night—time for a special activity together. Discuss ideas of what to do, and give your children opportunity to provide input and have their say. Make it something everyone will really look forward to each week. The possibilities for family nights are only limited by your imagination. The main thing is, learn to do things together as a family.
Make the dinner something the children will love. Have a cookout. Look through recipe books, go shopping and make a meal together as a family. Play board games. Play more physical games like hide-and-seek or wrestling matches. Enjoy an evening making music together. Hold a dance in your living room. Undertake a building project. Learn a new hobby together.
Make your family time interactive. This means controlling your media use. Even time spent together looking at a screen is usually squandered. It rarely builds up the family. As Mr. Armstrong wrote—before the advent of the Internet, streaming services, personal computers, tablets and smartphones—“The movies bring ‘pleasures’ through the sense of sight and of sound. Kids spend hours a day before the ‘one-eyed monster.’ It provides a ready-made daydream. And misuse not only dulls the mind, television has been a prime medium by which the anti-family conspiracy has injected its deadly poison into juvenile and adult minds” (The Missing Dimension in Sex). If you do choose to have a family movie night, make sure it is worth the precious minutes and hours it eats up.
So many children today would rather sit inside and watch movies or play video games than go outside and run around, go fishing, climb trees. Urbanization has turned yesterday’s open woods into housing developments and strip malls, so the real world has shrunk for most young people. At the same time—thanks to television, movies, video games and the Internet—the virtual world has dramatically expanded for young people: a noisy, hyper world that requires no imagination and no activity.
A couple of books written in the 1880s are filled with crafts for young people. One of these books, The American Boy’s Handy Book, describes how to make knives, how to rear wild birds, how to build boats. Some of its chapter headings are “Homemade Hunting Apparatus, Etc,” “Practical Taxidermy for Boys,” “Snowball Warfare.” The second book, The American Girl’s Handy Book, includes instruction on how to make plaster casts, how to reseat a chair, how to paint china, how to transform old furniture into new. A chapter on “How to Make a Hammock” reads, “It is not difficult to make a hammock; anyone can soon knit one that is strong and comfortable, and it should not cost more than 50 cents. The materials required will be one hammock-needle about 9 inches long (this can be whittled out of hickory or ash, or purchased for 10 cents); two iron rings 2½ inches in diameter, which will cost about 5 cents each; two mesh-sticks or fids, one 20 inches long and 8 inches wide beveled on both sides: the other 9 inches long and 2½ inches wide, beveled on the long edge; these you can easily make yourself from any kind of wood.” Wow! Children in the 1880s were a different breed! Today, we are simply less capable because we are used to having everything handed to us.
We must be determined to provide our children with regular stimulating challenges. Hunt down opportunities to keep them active, to engage their imaginations, to work their hands, to show them what they can do if they only make the effort. Set an example in how to engage vigorously in real-world activity—to do whatever their hand finds to do with their might.
Go out for the evening. Visit a local park and go for a walk or a run as a family. Exercise together. Play sports. Take the family to a ball game. Visit a nearby lake for a swim. Pitch a tent in the backyard for a simple campout. Go on a drive through the countryside for a picnic. Take a Sunday to enjoy a family hike. Save up and take a trip to the coast.
Invite your children’s friends over to join your family night from time to time. Coordinate with another family or two for a friendly soccer or softball game. Go to the extra effort of having other families over for dinner. Bring the extended family together for Thanksgiving.
Get involved in group activities together through your congregation, school activities or events you organize with other individuals or families: picnics, swimming, family sports, hiking, fishing. Be aware, though, that often at a group activity, your family members can be separated doing different things. Be sure that if this happens, you’re not using it as a substitute for private family time where you can really be together.
When spending that time together, look for and seize opportunities to point your children toward God, and the God Family way of life. Look again at Deuteronomy 6:6-9 and 11:18-21, and get a picture of just how active and interactive God wants us to be with our children—and how God-centered those interactions should be. We are to teach our children about God in everything we do. Note that Moses wrote “when,” not “if.” We are to teach our children when, not if, we are sitting in the house (such as during those family meals!) and walking by the way—doing things together!
Yes, God commands us to teach our children while we are actively doing things with them! Time spent in private with your family provides an excellent opportunity to teach them the true values of life. There is no substitute for that time with the whole family involved.
Within a family, traditions can be marvelously useful, providing stability, comfort, rhythm and connection. Traditions can be like guardrails, keeping you on the right path.
A tradition is “an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behavior; the handing down of information, beliefs and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another,” or “cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs and institutions,” according to Merriam-Webster. God established many traditions in His chosen nation Israel. Family traditions do a lot to build tight bonds within your family.
“[W]hether you have realized it or not, there are really only two courses of action to take,” the Plain Truth of October 1984 stated. “Either build meaningful and lasting traditions in your family, or drift into nontraditions that will cause your family to split farther and farther apart from one another.”
Many things can be made into family traditions. It could be as simple as having a yearly camping trip with the family, or perhaps a regular family reunion. Getting together with the extended family is a great way to enhance unity.
It is especially important for your children to have a good relationship with their grandparents. God intends children to grow up with several generations watching out for them, teaching them, reminding them about the old ways, instructing them in history, showing them the family traditions. He intended a family’s legacy, heritage and history to grow richer with each passing generation.
A family tradition can be a trade or a hobby that a father passes down to his son. It could be a culinary skill that a mother teaches to her daughter. At the very least, such traditions will give the child something to remember their parents by when they grow older.
Some families will already have deep-rooted traditions. Maybe yours does not. Either way, family traditions should not be ignored.
Think of the cycles of life—the weekly Sabbath, the annual holy days, the seasons. Figure out something that the whole family would have fun doing or could learn valuable lessons from, something that could become a regular event like a trip to a national park or another sort of vacation. Your family will be stronger for having and holding on to such bonding experiences.
Use family traditions not only to draw your family in tighter, but also to teach your family about God and His wonderful law of love.
The Opportunity Is Yours!
Do you have happy memories from your childhood? You might remember picnicking at a lake, visiting your cousins, winning a game, learning to ride a horse, or taking that vacation to Yellowstone. For children, these fond recollections are memories of family, friends and fun. What children do not realize is that these occasions usually only came about because of parents’ intentional decision and effort to make them happen. Your father had to leave work early to bring you to the state fair. Your parents had to save for months to bring your family to visit your cousins in the mountains. They had to prioritize to attend your recital.
Your parents enjoyed these experiences along with you, but they also had to invest planning and resources to make them possible. If they hadn’t focused on your interests instead of their own, or on your development instead of their “daily grind,” these happy occasions never would have happened.
Now you are the parents. It’s your turn to create opportunities for joyful moments for your family. Take time to do things together. Plan time to be together, and plan time in both quality and quantity—because these things don’t just happen. You must make them happen.Give of yourself—your time, your energy, your money, your resources—to be with your precious family. Work to provide a wealth of experiences that cause your children to truly love family life! It will do so much to help them look forward with anticipation and joy to life in the God Family forever!