Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

More quality time tops family agendas

Despite competing demands, U.S. Census shows parents, children making greater effort to bond

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
The Holland family, (clockwise from left) Jen, Jacob, 7, Bruce, Caleb, 3 and Ben, 10, stay connected through daily teatime at their Silver Spring home.
The Holland family has dinner together every night in their Silver Spring home. When dad Bruce is running late from work, his wife, Jen, and sons, Ben, Jacob and Caleb, wait until he arrives to start their meal. When Jake has soccer practice after school, the family meets for dinner later, as long as it takes to get the five together.

Every afternoon, Jen Holland sits down to have tea and snacks with her boys, where they vent about their days and ask her about her own. Her efforts in getting the family to do most of everything together, including Tuesday board-game nights, has created a bond among the brothers. She says they prefer to spend time with each other than ‘‘veg” in front of the television — unless it’s Family Movie Night.

‘‘Eating dinner together I like a lot because Mom makes good food and it’s a time where I can be with my family,” said Jake, 7.

‘‘I’ve been told a lot of times that it is really rare, but really it’s special because everyone’s there,” Ben, 10, said of the daily teatime.

Despite demands on families’ time and an increase in the number of children who own video games, iPods, cell phones and other technologies that could be considered distractions from spending time together as a family unit, U.S. Census Bureau data shows an increase in families like the Hollands, who eat together, play together and enjoy doing so.

Parents today are stricter with their children when it comes to the amount of time spent in front of the television, have more family meals together and spend more time interacting with their children than they did a decade ago, and even since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau survey, released last October.

The estimates come from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which measures what child development experts consider important factors in determining a child’s well-being and social and emotional skills.

Jeannie Ho, a professor in the School of Education on the Rockville campus of Montgomery College, said decades of research shows that children of parents who interact with them and set clear limits on video game, television and computer use in favor of spending time together as a family are better equipped to deal with day-to-day interactions.

Children who are encouraged by their parents to spend time with their families and praised often for doing well in and outside of school are also more motivated and interested in doing those things, she said, adding that all these things are most important during a child’s formative years, between birth and age 8.

Jill Ortman-Fouse, PTA president for Highland and Oak View elementary schools in Silver Spring, said she reminds her son Nathan, 6, and daughter Siena, 8, that time together at dinner, before bed or on family trips is important because ‘‘we’re family, and that’s what you do when you’re with family.”

‘‘I imagine that their lives will get more complicated as they get older,” she said.

Caryn Turner, whose daughter Juliette is a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring and has a son, 19-year-old Torrey, who recently graduated, said it becomes more difficult to come up with quality family time once the kids are out of middle school.

‘‘If the kids are really involved in after-school activities like theater, working or playing sports ... a lot of the time you’re trying to do things on weekends to catch up, or at breakfast before they run out,” said Turner, PTSA president at the high school. ‘‘I make sure to help with homework and limit TV time, but eating together all the time doesn’t work because of schedules.”

Marie Matthews, a Gaithersburg mother of three and PTA president at Shady Grove Middle School, said she stresses to the school’s parents that the more they are involved in their children’s lives, the better their children will do academically and socially.

‘‘I don’t think a lot of us have the time, but it’s important to find that time,” said Matthews, a co-leader of her 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle’s Girl Scout troop and former coach with her husband of her sons’ baseball and basketball teams. The Matthewses place a premium on dinner time and Friday movie nights, which even her sons, now 21 and 23 years old, still attend.

‘‘Still now, I know everything that’s going on with them. That comes with us being a close family,” she said.

Bruce Holland, father to Ben, Jacob and Caleb, 3, said one of his favorite kinds of family time happens right before bed, when he sings songs with the boys. Ben, the oldest, most enjoys tunes from the musical ‘‘Hair.”

‘‘Every time you’re together, you get to know one another better,” Bruce Holland said. ‘‘There’s more openness in terms of coming out with what’s happening in your life. ... It brings the group closer, really.”