De-Stressing Family Life

Experts offer their best calm-down cures for families with hectic households.

Everyday Family Routines

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Jordi Labanda

When we think of scientific research, we generally think of big issues: curing cancer, using DNA to convict criminals, saving animals from extinction. We don't necessarily think of the day-to-day lives of American families as fodder for study. But, in fact, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles are devoting the next couple of years to filming and documenting the everyday routines of 30 middle-class, dual-income families living in and around Los Angeles.

"We're there in the morning when they get up and parents are shepherding children out the door," says UCLA anthropology and applied linguistics professor Elinor Ochs, Ph.D., the team's leader. "In the afternoons we follow parents as they go to the grocery store, pick up the kids from school, and shuttle them here and there to activities. We also capture their evening routines -- getting dinner on the table, paying bills, monitoring homework, doing the laundry, and getting kids ready for bed."

In one unusual aspect of the study, the researchers collected saliva samples from the participants at different times of day. The samples were tested for levels of cortisol, a chemical indicator of human stress levels. The team was then able to determine how work and school tensions affect family life and which hours tend to be most stressful for parents and children.

As the UCLA scientists buckled down for this landmark study, Child decided to undertake some family-stress research of its own. We asked families across the country: What is your toughest time of day? Parents had no trouble responding. The two times most often cited were first thing in the morning -- when everybody has to be roused, dressed, and out -- and that awkward time after school and work, just before dinner.

Unlike the UCLA researchers, we set out to provide practical solutions. We sent in experts to observe households in action and make recommendations. In the interests of science, my family and I volunteered to be the first of three to go under the microscope. The result: important lessons for all families.

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