I’ll never forget sitting amid a group of family scholars, community leaders and parents and hearing one stand and say, “What we need is just one night a week when families can be home together, connecting.” They had gathered to address the challenge of overscheduled kids and underconnected families, lamenting a world of where children’s unstructured play time had decreased more than 12 hours per week, household conversations had dropped by 100%, and family mealtimes had become shorter and less consistent.
They all agreed on the problem, but it seemed nearly impossible to combat. An overwhelming current was pulling families in different directions, as good parenting had come to mean outsourcing children’s development — everything from soccer practice to music lessons, tutoring, swim team, art lessons and karate.
Fast forward to 2020, and within a 72-hour period, the coronavirus evaporated the problem of overscheduling. Home has not only become the only “safe” place to be, it is the focal point of everything — education, social life, skill development, nourishment, exercise, hobbies — literally, everything. And all of the sudden, every institution and business seems bent on helping families do it all. No wonder then, even in the midst of pain and anxiety for the many who are suffering, fear over the repercussions of a damaged economy, even stress in having everyone at home together all the time, most of us can’t deny feeling grateful for a pause on life, for time together for a resetting of our focus.
Because the truth is, family has always been the central source of influence, whether or not we have treated it that way. That is why after 75 years, and $20 million researching a class of 238 Harvard students, lead author George Vaillant concluded, “Happiness is love. Full stop.” IQ and academic achievement did not predict a successful life. What mattered was the quality of relationships across one’s life, beginning during childhood, at home.
For decades, scores of interventions from high-quality pre-K programs to longstanding anti-poverty programs have attempted to fill significant gaps for children. Some of these programs have shown some success. But there is a truth that no government policy or intervention program can escape — home life matters for children, and it matters far more than anything else in setting a child’s life trajectory.
Some of those home life experiences are exactly what have increased during this period of enforced family time — family walks, board games, movie nights, dinner, conversations and projects. Again and again, these connecting rituals show up as key to individual and family well-being across every life stage. For the newly married, they establish family identity and unity. For the family with young children, they translate into better social behaviors, academic achievement and self-regulation. For adolescents, they predict a stronger sense of identity, more closeness to parents, less anxiety and depression, fewer risk-taking behaviors and better communication patterns.
As well-known family therapist Bill Doherty has explained, “the natural drift of family life in contemporary America is toward slowly diminishing connection, meaning and unity.” Family rituals are the antidote because they create “patterns of connecting” every day, every week, every year, actually increasing feelings of connection over time. They are “the glue that holds families together.”
And while we’ve been enculturated to believe that children’s development needs to be outsourced to professionals outside our ordinary, mundane homes, we may be missing the most powerful sources of learning. The ever present need to clothe, feed and care for each other in family life means multiple opportunities every day learning skills that help us respond to and connect with others.
Research has shown, for example, that working side by side doing seemingly mindless chores dissolves feelings of hierarchy, making more intimate, open conversations possible. The fact that family work tasks range in difficulty, means even the youngest can feel competent in participating, strengthening their sense of belonging and confidence. As Kathleen Bahr and Cheri Loveless insightfully note, the most ordinary chores “can become daily rituals of family belonging … where family identity is built moment by moment amidst the talking and teasing, singing and storytelling, even the quarreling and anguish. …” Maybe most of all, in our cleaning up with one another, we “acknowledge our unavoidable interdependence; encouraging (even requiring) us to sacrifice ‘self’ for the good of the whole.”
Few things may be more important for children to experience in our culture of division and meritocracy, which as David Brooks’ powerfully explained has left us with “a lot of people who are very lonely, very isolated and very afraid.”
Perhaps the hidden gift of the coronavirus is that it will remind us of a better way to live, and give us strength to resist the pull away from focusing on the things that matter most in our lives. If we can just remember.
Jenet Jacob Erickson is an affiliated scholar of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.