Parenting Right: It’s Hard to Find Time to Make Dinners, Take Hikes, and Be With Grandparents, But It’s Worth It

For a long time, I’ve complained about the toxic environment that our kids inhabit today. On Sunday, Kim Brooks in the Times wrote that schools need to change — longer lunches, recesses, less emphasis on tests — to make kids’ lives better.

But we need more than some simple fixes in the school day. WE need to change. Schools are democratic institutions; they reflect the will of the community. And the community wants their kids in the best college possible. So, that means squeezing in more desk time and padding the resume with lunch-time bogus clubs. In order for schools to change, we need to change. And even if schools change, that’s not enough.

I hesitate to talk about how Steve and I have parented our kids, because I don’t want to parent-shame anyone. And we’re not perfect. I love my cellphone way too much. So, let me talk about what we’ve tried to do, not always perfectly.

We have family dinners about five or six times per week. I cook a meal, we sit at a common table at the same time, we eat it, and we talk a bit.

It sounds really simple, but not many families can do that anymore. I haven’t considered job openings in NYC, because there’s no way that my family would have food on the table if both Steve and I walked in the door at 7:00.

Even cooking at a beach house.

Aside from the benefits for mental health, with 2 teenage boys, we would very quickly be broke if I didn’t cook dinner regularly. They seriously eat VAST quantities of food. Last night, I made a chicken stew with about 4 pounds of chicken, 12 carrots, 3 onions, 3 celery stalks, wine and chicken broth, herbs from the garden, 5 potatoes, loaf of bread. It cost about $20. If we step into a restaurant, even McDonald’s, it’s a $60 minimum. I hope to squeeze it into a second meal by putting the leftovers on rice tonight.

Dinner time is a good time to debrief everyone at the same time about their days. It’s a time when we can catch problems or put a bandaid on a mental boo-boo. It’s a transition time for Steve, who is still sometimes in work-mode when he walks in the door. But even with pressure cookers, it’s very hard for families to do what I do every day. That chicken stew meal took about 2-1/2 hours to prep and cook; very few people have that time today.

We do a family activity together every weekend. Sometimes we go on bike trips or hikes. Sometimes we visit extended family. We go to museums a lot. None of it costs a lot of money, but it’s hard to have the time to do those things if the kids are in lots of high pressure sporting activities and are working on school projects. Or if the parents are catching up on household chores on the weekend.

Weekend hikes are fun!

We live near extended family. Again, this was a sacrifice. I didn’t put myself on the national market for an academic job, because I wanted to live near family. It’s good for the kids. And it’s good for me. My mom is driving Ian to band camp today, so I can get in a full day in front of the computer.

Always celebrating something.

I think we all know that these things (and more) are important for kids, but it’s hard to proscribe cures that are unworkable for most families. People need (and want) to work long hours. It’s also very hard to run in a different direction from other people in your community; if their kids are in all weekend sports programs, then your kid is going to want that, too.

In some ways, we’ve benefited from having a special needs kid and have always been on the outside of suburban life. Still, I think even with the limited time, families could step off the fast lane a little more. It’s actually super fun.

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21 thoughts on “Parenting Right: It’s Hard to Find Time to Make Dinners, Take Hikes, and Be With Grandparents, But It’s Worth It

  1. I think the premise, that we have to wrest control of our families to make sure that our values are reflected is an important one. How we do it will be a personal choice, though. Here’s what works for us:

    Family dinner at home isn’t something that works for us regularly (no one likes to cook, as one bar). But, we do try to go out to family dinners regularly.

    Our family has always demanded regular time together when we are at home We have one television in a common area and when they were little, the kids didn’t watch screens alone. Neither child spends significant time playing video games.

    We live near extended family and my parents (and other family) have been a regular part of the kids lives.

    We take regular family vacations. Over the course of a year, this means a month or so away from our regular obligations, away from friends, sports, and extracurricular.

    When we’re at home, the kids have busy school and extracurricular and social schedules. But, I think our steps have kept us connected as a family.

    (and looking forward to the times when our kids won’t live with us, my family’s regular Sunday phone call, now going on for more than 18 years and my spouse’s regular thanksgiving get together have helped keep extended family connected).

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  2. Go one step back and the foundational, load-bearing piece of this is “be lucky enough to be born into a supportive, friendly family.”

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  3. Laura wrote,

    “I think we all know that these things (and more) are important for kids, but it’s hard to proscribe cures that are unworkable for most families.”

    Running through your list:

    –We do a lot of dinners together. I don’t personally cook much, though.
    –I think that our oldest is a lot more communicative about her day in the car than at dinner. Dinner tends to be for general conversation rather than school news.
    –We don’t do a lot of full-family activities because we have a big age gap among the kids (17, 14, 6.5). There are a lot of things that some set of 3 of us does, though.
    –Our kids don’t do a lot of extracurriculars during the school year (at least not the kind that require extra driving). Our oldest has a music lesson and probably therapeutic riding. I believe the younger two will have CCE and confirmation prep and the youngest will probably have speech therapy twice a week, but we just bailed on cross country for our middle child (he’ll probably do track in the spring, though). I said that our kids don’t do a lot, but now that I’ve listed out all the things we’re planning to do, it does sound like a lot! Let me correct it to say that our kids do not individually do a lot of things, but it adds up to a lot, but it’s mostly either religious ed or therapy. The only completely elective item is the music lesson.
    –I personally think that bogus lunch-time clubs are awesome, and the kids are welcome to do as many as they like.
    –In our family, we try to do a lot of our fun and/or necessary activity stuff during the summer, because we just don’t have the time or inclination during the school year.
    –Saturday, as I often remind the kids, is for work: school work and home projects. We take Sunday off, though.
    –We live 2300 miles from all grandparents and about the same from the rest of our extended family. I wish I lived closer to my sister (especially now that she has a 4-year-old and I have a 6-year-old that are good buds) but it is what it is. We otherwise have very good quality of life in terms of a good job for my husband, a good school for the kids, a (basically) affordable home and a good community for all of us. Unfortunately, it’s very doubtful that we could achieve those things on the West Coast.

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  4. Kai Jones said, “Go one step back and the foundational, load-bearing piece of this is “be lucky enough to be born into a supportive, friendly family.””

    Yeah.

    I don’t approve of wholesale Boomer bashing, but it’s VERY noticeable from where I sit that different grandparents offer dramatically different assortments of grandparenting services.

    This is one of the biggest forms of inequality out there in terms of haves and have nots. There are grandparents who are out there helping host kid birthday parties, hosting “grandma camp,” hosting kids while parents go on vacation, funding private school, shuttling kids to school, funding college, and then there are much more detached grandparents…and then every possible permutation in between.

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    1. This is one of the biggest forms of inequality out there in terms of haves and have nots.

      This is what Thomas Shapiro was talking about in “The Hidden Cost of Being African American”, which is one of the best resources for illustrating structural inequality. Working class people who aren’t black will instantly relate to the black families. Shapiro wanted to get people talking about the resource differential (of wealth, of time), how that resource differential impacted families, and public policy changes that would improve the lives of families without those inherited resources.

      Here’s a reference. Since he’s written the book, the economic situation of the average family has only gotten worse. The much-vaunted “recovery” from 2008 never trickled down. Gen X grandparenting is going to look a lot different from Boomer grandparenting, since pensions are a thing of the past.

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      1. Lubiddu said, “The much-vaunted “recovery” from 2008 never trickled down. Gen X grandparenting is going to look a lot different from Boomer grandparenting, since pensions are a thing of the past.”

        I have a lot of examples of variations in how Boomers do grandparenting, which I’m not going to share in order to protect the guilty.

        On the one hand, there’s economic necessity, but on the other hand, I have seen a lot of variation even among grandparents of basically the same economic tier. Among well-off Boomers, there are Boomer grandparents out there who are very hands-on and engaged, there are Boomer grandparents who just write a lot of checks (plus various combinations of engaged and financially helpful), and there are Boomer grandparents who do almost nothing, because they’re workaholics and/or extremely selfish and short-sighted. With regard to the last group, I have NO idea what they think their old age is going to look like if they never lifted a finger for their adult children or grandchildren.

        As the Boomers in the last category age into needing help themselves, we’re headed for a massive trainwreck (especially since there are a lot more single old people among Boomers than in previous generations).

        I’m GenX and I’ve had a lot of discussions (online and off) about this stuff, and I believe that there are a lot of GenX parents who are disappointed by how their Boomer Parents handled grandparenting, and want to do better.

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  5. I was mostly a single mother and we still ate dinner together unless the kids had activities. I just don’t find these sorts of things as hard as you seem to do. You do them, but assume that others just can’t if they have to work. Well, I worked, I did it, I was single.

    It doesn’t have to be gourmet. That doesn’t mean it was fast food or processed crap either. There is nothing wrong with pork chops in the oven with orange juice and soy sauce, a salad, rice or potatoes, plus a vegetable like sauteed cabbage or green beans. It wouldn’t take me 2 1/2 hours, it would take 30-40 minutes. Well before Rachel Ray there were lots of cookbooks devoted to dinner in thirty minutes. I had one that had complete menus for thirty minutes or less and even what it called a ‘game plan’ – Start the water, peel the potatoes, then do the chicken etc.

    (Actual question – why does that menu take so long? I have noticed on posts where you talk about cooking that your stuff seems to take much longer than my experience and I don’t know what we are doing differently. I’m at a loss.)

    I actually think the mental energy of figuring out what to make is the hardest part. But, again, there are many strategies to help. I did a lot of ‘if it’s Tuesday, it’s meatloaf’, to cut down on the mental energy I had to spend on dinner. Once my kids were teens, they each had to make dinner once a week.

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    1. I find cooking nearly impossible. I do not think the barriers are technical (i.e. I don’t know how to cook). I think that ultimately, I’d rather do other things than cook. I also have psychological hangups about cooking animals (and, grew up eating a different set of foods than we would choose to eat now). Is my family potentially different because of that? Potentially. The kids periodically complain that they never come home to a meal of pork chops and green beans on the table (when they do get a fully cooked meal, it’s my mother’s, who is a vegetarian).

      I try to find ways for my family to connect apart from family dinners, and I think that’s part of the point I wanted to make, what keeps discussions from being prescriptive (and potentially guilt inducing — am personally good at not feeling guilty about the choices I make, but have noted how rare that seems in talking to others). How do we find ways to connect and grow as families, to keep that bond strong and supportive while being who we and our families are?

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      1. The ability to not feel guilty just because I’m not doing things the way other people are, is (according to my daughter) my super power.

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      2. bj said,

        “I think that ultimately, I’d rather do other things than cook.”

        There was a time where I would have been very excited about it and into it, but the bloom has left that particular rose. In my case, it’s mostly that I hate how dirty the kitchen gets from being used. So I tend to just grocery shop, sous chef for whoever is cooking and wipe down afterward, rather than cooking, too.

        Having big kids does make it a lot easier to spread tasks out.

        Husband is making racuchy tonight. It’s amazing how much better somebody else’s cooking tastes!

        https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/232805/racuchy-z-jablkami-polish-apple-pancakes/

        “The kids periodically complain that they never come home to a meal of pork chops and green beans on the table”

        Interestingly, my own semi-WASP kids never complain about that, although our version of that is that they did rave about it that one time I made Instant Pot chili that we’d finally had a REAL dinner…

        My oldest has started making mochi, which is fun, but not a dinner item!

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    2. Tulip said,

      “Once my kids were teens, they each had to make dinner once a week.”

      We do something like that during the times of year when the kids are out of school and we have to cook. (We normally eat dinner at the cafeteria when it’s open.)

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    3. I assume that it’s hard to eat together as a family, because people tell me that it’s hard. Sometimes it’s because of work and commute schedules. Sometimes it’s because of major after school activities. Because Steve has a 12 hour day (includes a 3 hour combined commute), he can’t do much. If I worked any office job in this area, I would have the same hours. Quite a lot of people work longer hours around here.

      Why does it take 2-1/2 hours? Well, that meal needed an hour in the oven. I also had to go to the store (5 minutes away) to pick up items, put away the clean dishes, put in breakfast/lunch dishes into the dishwasher, chop the vegetables, and brown the meat. I definitely could have make something that took less time in the oven and had less prep work, but I didn’t that night. I also like to make meals that will last two nights, so more food = more prep work. I didn’t include the clean up in that number either. Steve did that.

      I suppose there’s nothing magical about cooking a full meal for your family. I suppose that family time could be achieved by nuking frozen meals from Trader Joe’s, too. That’s what my sister does. She never cooks. And since her husband doesn’t get home until 9 every night, they don’t really do family dinners. So, they prioritize weekend time with their kids.

      Every family is different and finds that together time in different ways. For us, it’s the weekly dinner.

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  6. Yes, the structural issues are big. I’m am talking in the context in which no one in the family mental illness, substance issues, significant financial mismanagement, and where everyone is functionally, generally kind, and where the grandparents are supportive, helpful (and also not requiring caretaking themselves). Some chronic health issues are starting to creep in, but, even then, the bonds were built before dealing with those issues. We also have financial resources that allow us to say — hey family dinner will be out and spendy.

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  7. My wife and I both worked long hours when our daughter was young, so we had to kind of stagger our days. I got her ready for school (breakfast, getting dressed, and the crucial “lap time” while I drank my coffee and she sucked her thumb). Then I usually worked late and ate dinner at work, while my wife came home and ate dinner with my daughter. I usually got home before bedtime. I usually did weekend activities with her while my wife shopped and took care of the house. So she had lots of time with a parent, but much less time with two.

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    1. This is what I hated in my life when my kids were small and we were both working significant schedules. It is necessary, but for me the particularly painful price; I (don’t know of the kids) wanted to spend time with my entire family including both adults, not to switch off.

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      1. bj said, “This is what I hated in my life when my kids were small and we were both working significant schedules. It is necessary, but for me the particularly painful price; I (don’t know of the kids) wanted to spend time with my entire family including both adults, not to switch off.”

        Even with my husband having a reasonable schedule and me being primarily (but not 100%) SAHM, doing much as a whole family of 5 is a bit of a stretch. In fact, to be perfectly honest, one of our primary goals this summer was to prevent the big kids from having too much little sister time. The right amount of little sister time is charming and magical–too much and the big kids start hiding in their rooms.

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  8. Off topic, but way too funny not to share. We’ve been getting memos about the importance of collegiality and I finally got the scoop. At another location, two mathematicians got into a fist fight over proofs! Ha ha ha! I actually sympathize with the combatants. I have had two screaming arguments in my professional life (embarrassed after both) and both were over proofs.

    I still say I was right.

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    1. Funny, in a black comedy way. My screaming argument, which I now regret, was over a cite. I was kind of right, but not worth screaming over to my supervisor.

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