This is the third installment of a series exploring 15 traits of healthy families, identified by Dolores Curran as important to family success. This month’s column will look at traits six through eight, which state that healthy families; 6) are playful and have a sense of humor, 7) have a balance of interaction among family members, and 8) share leisure time. These three traits discuss important ways in which healthy families share and participate in each other’s lives. As I write these columns on the traits of healthy families, I am struck again with the truth of how important these traits are to healthy family functioning. I also realize how easy it is to neglect implementing these traits, especially the ones in this month’s column.
When we live with a sense of urgency and stress, playfulness, humor, and leisure time are nonexistent. Many of us have a very long list of things we must accomplish. These things rob us of opportunities to enjoy the moment. As I write this column, the daily news is inundated with tragic stories of hurricane Katrina’s destruction. People in the hurricane’s path have lost everything, but the most distraught are those who have lost family members. This should be a wake up call, because every day that you allow yourself to be distracted by “to-do lists” and the meaningless trappings of life is a day you have lost with your family.
One of the best ways to treasure your family every day is to develop trait 6; being playful and humorous with your family. To accomplish this, you must first recognize that play is a real need in families. Take the story of the marines of Easy Company who fought for 36 days in 1945 in the battle of Iwo Jima. Fifteen days into the battle, Easy Company was removed to a safe beach area where they were ordered to “take a swim” before they rejoined the battle. In the same way, families need to take a break from the daily grind by playing and having fun every now and then. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it certainly doesn’t require money, for your family to be playful. Take a hike, go to a park, play a board game, join the kids in a game of hide-n-seek, throw rocks in a pond, you name it.
As for humor, it shouldn’t be in short supply if you have young kids at home. Most kids have a good sense of humor and can remind you to laugh at yourself. Kids age 5 to 12 like to tell jokes, especially if the parents will laugh at the joke. Joking is really only helpful when done in a context of lighthearted security in the family. Sarcasm, while funny to adults, is lost on children and chronic sarcasm erodes family peace. Cognitively, most children under 12 aren’t able to process the double meanings and subtleties of sarcasm and are likely to get their feelings hurt when sarcasm is aimed at them. Therefore it is important to use humor positively. Rather than bemoaning a ridiculous situation, laugh at it because it is ridiculous. Laughter really is good medicine, and should be taken regularly.
Trait 7, a balance of interaction among family members, is really about healthy boundaries. Healthy families have the ability to keep work and other activities from taking over family time. Sometimes, these situations are unavoidable. When a pattern of work or other demands interfere with family life, though, it’s a problem. Another aspect of boundaries in trait 7 is balanced interactions among family members. This means the family doesn’t allow cliques to form in the family and won’t allow certain members to be excluded. When parents play favorites with the children, it creates pain and suffering that can last for decades. Balance of interaction means everyone feels included and special, not just a chosen few. If a father of three takes his son on a fishing trip, then he ought to spend one-on-one time with his other two children at a later date. This shows a balance of interaction.
Sharing leisure time, trait 8, means the family keeps its collective leisure time in balance. The problem with leisure time, and with time in general, is that it goes so fast! If you aren’t careful, your family can waste a whole day together rather than spend it well. Therefore it is important that you be proactive in sharing leisure time. Plan your leisure time to make the most of it. If you don’t, chances are the television, Playstation, Gameboy, and the internet will plan your family’s free time for you. Control the television and other electronic mind-numbing devices. Prioritize your activities so you feel good about how you spent your time.
Keeping leisure time balanced among family members is a challenge. Everyone in the family is entitled to some down time, even mom! One way to make sure everyone can enjoy leisure time is to share household responsibilities evenly. If everyone is sprawled out relaxing but mom is still cleaning, there’s a problem. Healthy families make it a point to share leisure time together. They also take opportunities for one-on-one time, like the example of the father fishing with his son in the previous paragraph. It is also important for each family member to have time alone as well.
In summary, healthy families are playful. They have the ability to be lighthearted. They make everyone feel included and discourage unfair alliances in the family. They enjoy leisure time together; either as a whole or in smaller groups. These are difficult traits to develop, but given the amount of stress and demands put on families today, they are necessary for the family’s survival.