Spending time with your children is critical to building close family relationships, but it isn’t enough to just spend the time. You need to make sure the time you spend together is wholesome, uplifting, and meaningful.
“Music, literature, art, dance, drama, athletics—all can provide entertainment to enrich one’s life and further consecrate it. At the same time, it hardly needs to be said that much of what passes for entertainment today is coarse, degrading, violent, mind-numbing, and time wasting. Ironically, it sometimes takes hard work to find wholesome leisure. When entertainment turns from virtue to vice, it becomes a destroyer of the consecrated life.” (See D. Todd Christofferson, “Reflections on a Consecrated Life,” Ensign, Nov 2010, 16–19.)
Children have many influencers. Friends, teachers, and media all encourage children to do things that may not always match what you want them to do. The parent’s job is to get to the children ahead of the other influencers, since children tend to adopt what they learn first.
Beginning long before it is necessary, a parent needs to help children want wholesome entertainment. The desire to avoid inappropriate activities needs to be internalized as a part of who they are. “Sorry, I don’t like violent programs.” “That’s a huge waste of time. I usually prefer spending my time doing something useful.” You can help by planting that identity in their heads. “I love the way you stop reading books that have swearing in them.” “I see you’re reading about the Middle Ages. You’re always anxious to learn new things.” When they hear these types of statements starting in the toddler years, they begin to see themselves that way and they work hard to live up to that identity.
Of course, parents need to set a good example for their children. If you want your children to spend time learning just for the fun of it, you’ll need to do the same. If you want them to avoid immoral television programs, you’ll avoid them as well. If you tell them to do something you don’t do yourself, they won’t take you seriously. Not only do you need to live the life you want them to live, but you must show them how it makes your life better.
When planning family activities, pay close attention to the wholesomeness and value of the activities. Every activity doesn’t have to be educational, but it should be fun and moral. The things you do with your children when they are young are likely to be the things they want to do as they grow up and start making their own choices.
The best activities cost nothing and can be done locally and easily. Because they are free you can make them a tradition even when money is tight. You don’t have to save up or travel far away. It’s also helpful to choose traditional activities that are portable, things you can take with you wherever you live.
An example of a free and portable activity is going for a walk. You can walk in your own neighborhood, in a park, in a nearby forest. When you’re away from home you can always find a place to walk. It is entirely free and very portable. It is also an expandable hobby. Some walking families add bird-watching to the walk. Others pick up trash as they go. Some use the time to tell stories or to talk over the day. Adding new layers to a simple tradition also adds new levels of learning or self-identity. For instance, when you pick up litter or watch birds, you also teach children to appreciate and care for the world God gave us as a gift. When you talk and tell stories, you emphasize to your children they matter to you and so do their thoughts and ideas.
Another great way to spend inexpensive time with children is by reading together, even after the children are able to read for themselves. Of course, this requires a certain amount of diligence on the part of the parents. Today, many books written for children contain intense levels of immorality. It is wise to read a book privately before reading it to your children to be sure you are comfortable with the book.
Of course, everyone in a book will not behave morally. Frequently, immorality causes the problems the characters face. What you are looking for is a book that does not celebrate immorality. When it is encountered in the book, you will want to spend some time talking about what happened and why it is wrong. Especially note any challenges a character faces due to his poor choices.
Creative activities are particularly valuable as wholesome family activities. When you make your own entertainment instead of watching media created by others, you are entirely in control of the morality and messages. Young children often enjoy puppet shows. Puppet shows involve a great deal of creativity if you do everything from scratch.
First, of course, you need a story to act out. Have you ever tried making up your own? You don’t have to write the story down. Just sit with your children and play a game of “What would happen if….” Let everyone brainstorm funny or interesting ideas and write them down. “What would happen if we found an elephant walking down the street and got to keep it?” “What would happen if a new girl moved next door and she didn’t speak English but we wanted to be friends with her” “What would happen if we got a magic carpet?”
Choose one to make into a puppet show. Keep the others for future shows. You could write each one on a strip of paper and each time you want to do a show, you would pull one out at random. This keeps children from getting their feelings hurt if the family doesn’t choose their ideas.
Now you have to work out the plot—the story. Again, brainstorming is the easiest way to do this. If you have a family of talkers, you can sit together and talk out ideas. Another way is for each family member to choose a character to be in this story and make the puppets. Then you can just start acting out the story and see how it ends up. Don’t worry if your serious story about a family that loses its job ends up with a dinosaur in the story. You never know…the dinosaur might be just what the story needed. Allow each child the freedom to choose his own character until you have more experience as puppeteers.
Don’t run out and buy puppets. The show is more fun if you make your own. While you can find elaborate patterns for puppets, the point is for the family to spend time together. Choose simple creative patterns or let the children come up with their own ideas. If one child makes a stick puppet, one sews a puppet, and one does a paper bag puppet, that isn’t important. This is for family, not Broadway. Sit together in the same room and keep it light. Don’t control your child’s project. It’s his puppet, so let him do it his way.
Practice should be relaxed and informal. The show will probably be different every time you rehearse it since you will all be using your imaginations and saying whatever comes to mind. That isn’t important. What is important is having fun. Before you get too tired of practicing, though, find an audience, whether it’s a grandparent or a line of stuffed animals.
Building with blocks is another fun way to spend time together. It requires an initial investment, but if you buy good, sturdy and interesting blocks, they can keep your family occupied for years.
Try planting a garden together. This activity is both fun and useful and can help children learn to eat healthier meals. Food always tastes better when you grow it yourself. Cook as a family—making bread is fun for even a preschooler, for instance, and young children can participate in making dinner with help.
Even chores can become a family activity. One family always worked together in a single room. As they worked, they sang, played word games, or told stories. The work was done painlessly and the family spent quality time together.
Let your children participate in choosing new family activities and traditions. Wholesome activities may take more imagination but they create lasting memories and teach values at the same time.