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Why quality family time isn’t about entertaining your kids

MOTHER AND SON ENJOYING SUMMER
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I often conflate spending time with my kids with entertaining or distracting them. Here's what I learned about true quality time.

The last few days, I’ve been in a little bit of a funk. We’re in the last hurrah of summer, but it hasn’t been much of one. It started out strong with a family trip to New Mexico, but when we got back I was gobsmacked by the realization that summer vacation with a full-time job is … a lot less of a vacation.

In fact, it’s more like having a full-time job while juggling on stilts. The activities we had set up — a week of summer camp for the oldest, a week of VBS for the three middles — were few and far between, and the kids have mostly been at loose ends all summer. Meanwhile, I’ve tried to keep up with work, get school registration handled, take care of the kids, and spend quality time with them all while feeling like I’m mostly doing a poor job on all fronts.

So I decided to try and pack “quality summer fun time” into the few weeks we have left. I planned activities and made promises and tried to get my ducks in a row, and for the most part I’ve done okay. But I still feel like it isn’t enough … and I’m exhausted by the effort, truth be told.

Last night I ended up slumped on the couch, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook while my kids watched a movie, when this TED talk popped up in my newsfeed and immediately caught my attention.

And then one day, something just clicked. I saw all these patterns: round things … pops of bright color … symmetrical shapes … a sense of abundance and multiplicity … a feeling of lightness or elevation. When I saw it this way, I realized that though the feeling of joy is mysterious and elusive, we can access it through tangible, physical attributes, or what designers call aesthetics, a word that comes from the same root as the Greek word “aísthomai,” which means, “I feel,” “I sense,” “I perceive.” …

Each moment of joy is small, but over time, they add up to more than the sum of their parts. And so maybe instead of chasing after happiness, what we should be doing is embracing joy and finding ways to put ourselves in the path of it more often. Deep within us, we all have this impulse to seek out joy in our surroundings. And we have it for a reason. Joy isn’t some superfluous extra — it’s directly connected to our fundamental instinct for survival. On the most basic level, the drive toward joy is the drive toward life.

This hit me like a much-needed Mack truck of truth. Here we were, midway through a week I had packed so full of “summer fun” that we were all exhausted and resorting to Netflix and binge-scrolling just to recover. We were having fun, I guess, but we weren’t happy. We were exhausted.

So this morning, we walked outside and sat on the front porch and watched Isaac point to every bird in the sky and call them all eagles. The other kids laughed and tried to teach him the actual names for the birds — sparrow, blackbird, crow. Then we had to google “names of birds” because our grasp of ornithology is sadly lacking, and in the process we learned lots of new and interesting facts about birds. In the meantime, Isaac kept pointing out all the “eagles” and making the other kids roll around with laughter.

It was not what I had planned, but it was what we needed. It wasn’t “summer fun” by a long shot — it was something better. It was a little moment of joy, of connection, of togetherness. It was a time of more quality than all the “quality time” I had planned put together.

So we scrapped our summer fun plans, and made plans to do more of nothing. To just take walks and watch the birds, or go swimming in our own back yard instead of making the brutal and exhausting trip to the water park. To find little moment of joy in our lives, rather than filling them with entertainment and distractions.

The truth is, we don’t need to be entertained and distracted to be happy. We’re much happier when we’re just together, enjoying each other and the beauty of the world around us. That’s true quality time.

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