PROVO — When it comes to family bonding, the little moments matter most to kids.
Hanging out with dad doing everyday things like playing ball or raking leaves trumps flashy vacations when it comes to building family bonds. In fact, a new study by BYU researchers says families feel closer and function better when dad makes time for ordinary, "core" activities. Fathers who only have leisure and recreation time with their kids on big vacations or for organized activities don't have the same kind of relationship.
The study is published in the journal Leisure Sciences.
"Rather than the occasional expensive family vacation alone, the satisfaction with regularly occurring home-based family activities such as eating dinner together, participating in hobbies and informal sports and yard activities together, watching television together, or playing board games together with the father present was the single strongest predictor of all aspects of family functioning, particularly from the youth perspective," said Ramon B. Zabriskie, professor in Brigham Young University's Marriott School.
The idea for the study came from Lydia Buswell, then a graduate student in Recreation Management at the school. Studies have examined many aspects of increased father involvement in families, but few look at family recreation and how it impacts family. She's the lead author on the study.
The researchers, who also included Marriott School professor Neil Lundberg and Alan Hawkins, a professor in the School of Family Life, surveyed fathers of children 11 to 15, along with their children, in 647 households that formed a nationally representative sample. The families came from across the country and ranged from very low-income to wealthy.
Zabriskie said they focused on two types of interactions. The core family leisure activities were commonplace events like eating together, playing board games, watching TV, reading books and playing sports in the yard. They compared the value of those to "balance" activities, like the big annual family vacation or going to events, eating out and other bigger-ticket activities.
Core family recreation and leisure was the single strongest predictor of family function, Zabriskie said.
That doesn't mean the bigger events don't matter. They can strengthen the family, too. But absent the core activities, the balance activities can backfire, the researchers said.
Zabriskie noted that when fathers haven't formed those daily bonds with kids, the big events can become more of a chore or burden and actually strain the relationship between father and adolescent. He said most adults would possibly predict that kids most value the family trip to Disneyland, for instance. But their study found that the kids put the highest value on the more ordinary togetherness moments.
"Too often when people think about family leisure, they think of the time they spend on vacations and neglect the leisure time spent at home," Buswell said in a written statement accompanying the study. "Family vacations and other balance activities can only help build a family if there is a foundation to build on first."
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