Quality Time: an informal reference to time spent with loved ones that is in some way important or special. It may also refer to time spent performing some favored activity, such as a hobby. The actual time available to enjoy quality time is often limited. However, this is outweighed by the importance attached to events or interactions that occur during quality time.
—Excerpted from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia

Parents today are time-strapped. Scrambling to fix breakfast and pack nutritious school lunches while tending to baby and negotiating how one child may make his 4pm recital when a sibling needs to be shuffled to a tutoring session, stay-at-home moms often feel there aren’t enough hours in a morning— let alone in a day. And with all this hustle and bustle, what’s a family to do when both parents work and every man, woman and child in the house operates on different schedules? In this day and age, is quality family time possible?

As you may recall, last winter we “challenged” families to find viable ways to share special moments. No, crashing on the couch to collectively watch a Spongebob cartoon wouldn’t cut it. Nor would a five-minute pizza fix with each family member dining in a separate room of the house. In order to meet the Family Time Challenge, families had to relish at least four, 30-minute meals void of television, and two quality activities sans iPods and cell phones— each week for four weeks. We also directed families to designate 20 weekly minutes for discussing a shared experience, like a picnic or museum outing, as part of the Challenge. Lastly, participating families had to document the month of family moments and discussions.

The McKenna, McFadden and Higgins families rose to the Challenge, later gushing at how the associated tasks enhanced the special moments that their family members shared. Not all families could follow the strictures of the Challenge exactly. However, honoring the commitment to attempt their absolute best in terms of spending quality time together is a testament to what it means to be a mother, father, sister and brother today. The three families have shown that with foresight, creativity, tenacity, love and sacrifice, any family in these frenetic times can find occasions to allow family bonds to flourish.

Here’s a peek at how these three East Coast families met the Challenge:

The McKenna Family

Mom, a part-time teacher, and Dad, a full-time senior systems computer analyst, are the parents of Chris, 14, Brian, 11, and Kevin, 7.

Each week, the McKennas shared four to six meals, either at home, out or from take-out. “We never realized how important the subjects are that we discuss at the family table,” noted Mom, Carol. “Many life lessons to be learned!”

Carol said family time has always been crucial for the McKennas, with nightly activities involving all or some of the clan for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts (both parents are town leaders of such programs), art classes, volunteer sessions, church youth group meetings and library groups. “If nothing, we usually spend the time watching TV, finishing homework, playing on the computer, practicing instruments, reading books and talking,” she said about the family’s after dinner affairs. Still, the Challenge’s weekly discussions provided a unique opportunity to reflect on family members’ emotions, like an upset son “being bullied at school” versus a delighted son “done with many of his school projects and he could finally enjoy family activities without having them loom over his head.”

Along with sharing 20 meals throughout Challenge, the McKennas jointly experienced a family reunion, a son’s baseball game, board game play, schoolwork, two family birthday parties, a Cub Scout meeting, an extended family picnic, a movie jaunt and a “couple night” for the parents. “My parents instilled how important it is for families to sit down each night and be together at the family table to eat and talk,” Carol concluded post-Challenge. “Hopefully this tradition will continue with our three boys!”

The McFadden Family

Mom, a full-time financial analyst, and Dad, a full-time substance abuse prevention intervention specialist for the New York school system, are the parents of Isaiah, 5, and Mekhi, 3.

The McFaddens had three to four weekly meals together during the Challenge— on Sundays, Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. Out the door by 5:45am, Mr. McFadden gets home from work at about 7:30pm while the young boys are in bed, making a collective weekday meal in this household near impossible. But, the second Saturday of the Challenge, all four McFaddens bowled then went to Cheeseburger Paradise. “The boys were very excited to have their Dad go out to eat with us,” said Mom Karen, who typically takes the boys to and from school and T-ball play, before and after her workday. “It’s usually just Isaiah, Mekhi and myself. I was happy as well.”

Also on the second week, communication improved, which was dually noted by Karen. “While my husband and I talk, we started to communicate more than we normally do and that’s something we will strive to maintain,” said Karen. “I also have a habit of asking the boys about their day at school; however, we never get to do this as a family so we took the time to ask the boys about their day at school. My husband found it very informative.”

Family relations strengthened all around. From week one, Karen observed the sons getting along better, and by the end of the Challenge, both boys followed instructions to clean up toys in their room. Karen attributed the family chore to the Challenge. During that week’s “family chat,” Karen revealed she needed more help around the house.

Additional activities the McFaddens shared included a trip to Point Pleasant beach, miniature golf, memory games and eye-opening conversations, pinpointing family members’ respective needs and interests. While chitchatting, the McFaddens discussed a yearning to travel together— an activity this time-crunched clan rarely experiences. Ultimately, the McFaddens committed to find an inexpensive weekend getaway to enjoy as a unit.
“My husband and I learned, that as a couple, we should make time for ourselves as well as with the boys,” Karen said. “We found that 99.9 percent of the time I’m running with the boys alone to different activities. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in the Family Time Challenge.”

The Higgins Family

Mom, a full-time accountant, and Dad, a hotel security guard who works 4pm to midnight, are the parents of Willy, 4, and Evelyn, 2.

Disclosing that work schedules and the children’s ages “make it very hard to sit down for a real sit-down dinner,” Mom Kathy documented that the Higgins Family ate “breakfast together all week long for the first time” on the first week of the Challenge, followed by “dinner together almost every night,” by the Challenge’s end.

While going on adventures to the playground, museum, mall, library, swimming pool and Great Wolf Lodge— where the family spent two entire days together— family members noticed daughter Evelyn speaking more frequently. Though Mom and Dad felt they had less free time, “it was worth it to see the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said Mom Kathy. “The kids are smiling more and they are becoming best friends!”

Did sibling friendships endure despite having to cut back on “me time,” as Kathy called it, and is the Higgins family likely to continue to spend quality time together? “Yes, it works,” says Kathy, “everyone is much happier. The discussions really got the kids thinking and bonding with each other and us… Hopefully this will be a bond that will last forever.”

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