When the whole family is involved in planning fun activities, you'll have more opportunities to experience special moments. "Family glue" is what Pat Tanner Nelson, professor of Human Development & Family Studies at University of Delaware, calls those moments that connect your family and build deep, healthy relationships. "Spending time together as a family takes planning, but it's a good investment," Nelson says. "When children feel close to their parents, they try harder to please them and make them proud, which then makes the whole family stronger." It doesn't have to be complicated—with a little bit of effort, you can turn bonding into a lifetime of funny, sweet stories and lasting memories.
Members of your family's older generations, like grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles, have many fascinating stories of growing up in different eras. Have your kids ask them what life was like in yesteryear and use a voice, or video recorder to capture their tales, voices, and expressions. Then turn the microphone around and encourage older family members to take turns interviewing someone, including the kids. By collecting personal anecdotes and memories, you'll have a time capsule of family history. As kids learn about their heritage, they can start thinking about their own legacies. Transcribe the interviews to create a book or digital file of photos for a slideshow to accompany the interviews.
Surprise family members with "holidays" tailored to each personality. Just like birthdays and conventional holidays, pack these days with unique traditions (like a poem written in someone's honor) and special foods. The celebrations can also be clever and unexpected ways to honor each person. When I was a kid, my mother posted a puzzling note on the fridge that said "5 Days until WAHD." The countdown continued...4 days, then 3, then 2, then 1, and finally the surprise was revealed: It was "We Appreciate Holly Day!" The fun of anticipating the mystery and guessing what the letters stood for is something I'll always remember and cherish. The day consisted of my favorite dinner, a fabulous cake, and a poster-size list of all the special things I accomplished at the time, like finishing homework, being kind to my younger sister, and making my bed without being asked.
Encourage everyone to get their hands dirty by digging a patch to plant flowers or vegetables in the backyard. Tuck tender seedlings into the ground and watch them grow and blossom—like your kids are doing every day. As they witness green shoots turn into stunning plants, your whole family will gain a new respect for the natural world, all while learning patience and perseverance as you divvy up the tasks of keeping the garden weed-free, well-watered, and strong. And if someone squeals upon discovering a squirmy garden worm? That's a hilarious family moment for the scrapbook!
The kitchen is the symbolic heart of a home, the place where everyone comes together to smell simmering sauces, listen to natural chit-chat, and of course taste the delicious meals. Eat dinner together at least three to four nights a week, and you'll be doing your family a favor: Studies show that kids who dine frequently with their families eat more fruits and vegetables, are more willing to try new dishes, and are even less likely to experience depression or eating disorders. Regular dinnertime conversations are also linked with more open communication between kids and parents.
"The more you can get into the habit of really listening to your kids and having these conversations from early ages, the more likely it is that kids are going to talk to their parents in adolescence about issues that are troubling them," says Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist and the author of The Parents We Mean to Be. Start with a collection of recipes and then assign everyone an age-appropriate job (no knives for toddlers!). Get creative with ingredients and techniques to forge delicious memories.
Empower your kids by letting them plan an outing. Wherever you go, let them be in charge! Make sure to set a budget and geographical limits, then hand over the reins and allow them to coordinate travel times, gather park maps, research museum hours, prepare for snack stops, and check weather reports. They'll feel proud, trusted, and independent as they take on a leadership role in the family, and you'll be proud to spend a wonderful day together with the kids at the helm.
You might not be the type to play family football in the yard like the Kennedys famously did, but having a regular game time is a terrific opportunity to teach lessons about playing by the rules and losing—or winning—gracefully. Think about the sports that would benefit your family dynamic and the interests of all the kids. Does everyone like indoor or outdoors sports? Recreational or extreme sports? Consider trips to the bowling alley, mini golf course, batting cage, or indoor climbing wall. Or try new and unfamiliar sports such as croquet and bocce. Even if no one is a fitness buff, any kind of physical activity, from a simple game of catch to a Frisbee toss to a walk around town, is fun, healthy, and the foundation of teamwork.
Getting out into nature offers a special kind of space for enjoying each other's company. Although research hasn't yet pinned down the science behind the benefits of fresh air, "natural settings seem to help calm down children (and everyone)," Nelson says. So as you stroll down a wooded trail, along a shoreline, or even through an urban park, breathe in, let your shoulders relax, and look around at the trees, the birds, the sky, and each other.
Alternate between "parents pick" and "kids pick" to choose your film—and don't forget to throw in home movies occasionally for a special treat! Set the mood with theme decorations and let movie magic take you away. Then pop some corn, get cozy, and visit favorite old characters or meet new ones as you laugh, cry, learn, and explore together. One family in Texas even hangs lights and makes "Yoda Soda," mixing sparkling soda with lime sherbet for a Star Wars theme night. After the movie, talk about what you've seen, emphasizing any teachable moments that took place.
Once everyone in the family is old enough to read (or listen to read-aloud stories), take turns choosing a book and then pick one day each month to sit down and talk about it. Think of questions that will make the discussions come alive, and let whoever chose the book lead the conversation. If you're having trouble choosing a title, ask a local librarian or bookstore owner for advice. Extend an invitation to aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members; if they live out of town, ask them to send thoughts via email or chat with them on Skype. Or be inspired by one family in Canada: Take the whole book club online by creating a blog and inviting family members to respond to questions or post reviews.
Plan your project, set up the necessary supplies, and let the creative magic happen. Try tracing everyone's hands, filling in the outlines with colorful designs, and framing everyone's prints. Or cut up copies of family photos or mementos to create a group collage or scrapbook. If you want to be bold, paint a mural on the entire wall of a playroom or family room. Displaying your collective artwork is a memorable and lasting tribute for your family.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Massachusetts. Her website is hollyrossi.com.