Guest Editorial

Thursday, April 4, 2002

Penciling in family time

One of the most disheartening stories I have read in a long time appeared in the paper yesterday. The dateline was my old hometown.

Tonight, there will be no basketball games in the school gyms. No gymnastics practices. No homework. No Rotary Club meetings. No Knights of Columbus. It took seven months to agree on a date, but the town has designated one date as a Family Night, when families can spend an evening together with no obligations.

This is what American family life has come to.

"The conditions are terrible," said William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence. "At least some people are waking up and trying to do something. At least they're shining a little flashlight in the dark."

You're shuttling the kids from piano to drama to aikido to the algebra tutor and then home for two hours of schoolwork. In the past 20 years, the time children spend in unstructured play has declined by 12 hours a week. The time they spend in organized sports has doubled. The time spent eating with the families regularly has dropped 33 percent.

"When I talk to parents, I see a sense of uncertainty about whether what they're doing is the right thing," Damon said. "But they don't dare get off the track and lose the competitive advantage for their kids."

And, while you're chauffeuring the kids or watching their Little League games, you're on the phone with the office or checking your e-mail. At least 25 percent of the country's 130 million employees work weekends, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 40 percent use cell phones, pagers or e-mail to do work during off-hours, a study by the Families and Work Institute found.

Even our so-called down time is supposed to be productive. We go to the gym, volunteer at the library, read "good-for-you" but boring books.

This is the time of year when acceptance letters from colleges and private high schools are showing up in the mail. Parents can hold the letters in their hands and convince themselves that they won; the sacrifice of family time was worth the result. There is never a letter detailing for them, in concrete black and white, what was lost and forever irretrievable.

Time around the dinner table, on hikes, at the sink washing the dishes together - this is when kids begin to form their own blueprint for a well-lived life.

Every kid's mind seeks information and guidance, and when the family doesn't provide it, someone else will.

Someday, the Smithsonian will house an exhibit showing parents and children gathered around a Monopoly board on a kitchen table. An engraved plate will explain, "Families once spent hours together engaged in activities that added no household income, offered no enhancement of social status and could not be included on college applications."