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Stop that runaway train! Regain your perspective on family values

You can easily be seduced by popular culture's messages that say that you will be a bad parent if you don't get your kids on the fast track as soon as possible. Your challenge is to recognize how this lifestyle is affecting your family.

Despite feeling that you're on a runaway train, you actually can stop it if you want. Examine and reconnect with your values (or change them). Make some deliberate choices about the kind of family life you want to have.

Ironically, these choices will create a family life that will not only make everyone in your family happier, but it will also make the Joneses jealous! While the Jones parents are driving their children all over town to practices and lessons, stopping at fast-food on the way, you'll be at home sitting down to family dinner with, reading to, playing with, and talking to your children. While the Jones parents are driving five hours on a Friday night to take their soccer-playing child to a tournament (and dragging along their less-fortunate children kicking and screaming), your family can have a picnic at the park on Saturday, your children can play pick-up soccer with other kids in the neighborhood, and you can read a really good book that afternoon. Gosh, which weekend plans would you rather to have? Let's look at how to make this happen for your family.

Regain perspective
The first step to stopping the runaway train is to regain perspective on your children's achievement activities. There are so many examples of parents losing perspective with their children, most notably in sports.

  • The tragic and fatal beating of a hockey father by another hockey father in Massachusetts.
  • In Houston, parents of a young baseball player sued his school district because his coaches weren't playing him enough to give him a chance at a college scholarship.
  • And just so you don't think that women are immune, two mothers assaulted another mother after a youth baseball game in Salt Lake City.

The first step toward stopping your family's runaway train is to not buy into popular culture's messages of fame and fortune through your children's achievements and maintain perspective on why your children are involved in sports and the arts. Despite the Lindsay Lohans and LeBron Jameses out there, let me say this as loudly and clearly as I can: whatever popular culture tells you about your children's impending superstardom, it's not going to happen! Your expectations for your children with regard to activities should be limited to:

  • Having fun;
  • Fostering their healthy development;
  • Love of a lifetime activity;
  • Appreciation for physical health (if it's a physical activity); and
  • The development of life skills that will benefit them later in life.

Everything else--a place on their high-school varsity team, a scholarship, or a professional career--is icing on the cake. If you accept only these expectations, your children will be as successful as they can be and they will also likely be happy. That doesn't mean that it's impossible for your children to achieve greatness--someone has to win the Olympic medals and perform at Carnegie Hall. However, you will lift the weight of that expectation off your children's shoulders, so that if they have the inborn talent and the desire, then they'll be free to pursue greatness on their own.

Clarify your family values and priorities
Now is the time to look closely at the values that guide your family and see if you're living your daily lives in accordance with them. Here's a helpful exercise. On one side of a piece of paper, list some of the activities that are consistent with your family values. They might include shared family activities, travel, religious or cultural experiences, or being outdoors. Then on the other side of the sheet of paper, list your actual weekly schedule. If yours is like most families' schedules, you will be amazed--and troubled--by how incongruent they are.

Though I can't tell you what priorities you should have as you organize your family's lives, I can offer you some food for thought on areas you will want to consider as you decide how you want to emphasize the value of family in your family.

Physical health
Studies have found that about one in five children are overweight, more than double the number from twenty years ago. And 70 percent of overweight children become overweight adults, creating even more healthy problems. Because of this threat, your children's physical health should be a priority in your family. Popular culture hurts your children's health, with fattening foods, candy, and soft drinks, and television and video games keep them sedentary. Your children's lives should never interfere with them eating three healthy meals a day. They should have regular opportunities for exercise. Your children should always be able to get to bed at a reasonable hour and should be able to get a good night's sleep (a minimum of eight hours).

Education
Education is another value that should take precedence in your children's lives. Considerable research has demonstrated the value of education in children's lives. Children whose families value education have fewer emotional problems, are less likely to drink alcohol or take drugs, and have lower rates of sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. As adults, they have better-paying jobs, fewer health problems, and lower rates of divorce.

They should have whatever resources are necessary for them to do their best in school. Your children should always have time to complete all of their homework assignments as thoroughly as they can and social and extracurricular activities should never get in the way.

Play
Play is becoming a dinosaur in the lives of today's children. According to studies, school-age children's playtime decreased by 25 percent and older children's playtime by 45 percent between 1981 and 1997. Children are just too busy to play these days and many seem to have lost the ability to play. Instead, too often children's play involves sitting in front of a video-game console, television, or computer, which isn't play at all.

Parents also lose sight of the value of play, seeing it as a distraction from their children's efforts in school. They don't understand how playtime can help their children achieve good grades and get into the best colleges. Play fosters initiative, independence, and creativity. Children also learn to play and cooperate with others. Active play develops motor coordination, enhances fitness, and fights obesity. And don't forget the main reason children should have plenty of playtime: fun!

Family dinner
A 2000 study reported a significant relationship between regular family meals and higher school performance, better mental health, reduced drug use, and lower rates of early sexual behavior among teenagers. You don't have to have dinners together every night--that's probably not realistic--but reserving several nights is reasonable.

Family first
Set a time each week when your family does nothing--yes, you heard me, nothing. Perhaps the greatest casualty of this runaway train is family time. So at least once a week just hang out around the house, go to the park, play games, whatever.

Limit your child's activities
Now things get more challenging. Its one thing to say that you want to make family a priority. It's an entirely more difficult thing to tell your children that they can't do something that they want to do or to limit their participation. You must decide what activities your children participate in, how many at one time, and the depth of their involvement. Setting limits on the number and frequency of activities in which you allow your children to participate is essential to stopping your family's runaway train. I recommend that you restrict your children to two activities during any season and no more than one extracurricular activity per day. Be sure that your children are involved for the right reasons, that their participation is consistent with your family values and that their involvement doesn't interfere with your family as the priority.

Maintain balance
Balance is one of the first values that is lost when your family's life turns into a runaway train. You want to encourage your children in their activities, but you also want to maintain your family's sanity. Your ability to make deliberate choices that strike a balance will determine whether your family is able to maintain control of the train that is your life.

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