Folk singer Harry Chapin’s 1974 song “Cat’s in the Cradle” poignantly depicts a scenario familiar to too many families. The first two verses of the song describe a father who is repeatedly too busy to spend time with his growing son. The last two verses tell of the son, now an adult, who does not have time for his dad. Between each verse, the heartbreaking chorus repeats the point that each says he will spend time with the other when he has more to spare.
There are a few powerful lessons illustrated in “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and one is to prioritize your family over other obligations, even your work, while you have the opportunity.
We may say that our families are a top priority, but do our lives reflect that? How we use our time reveals what matters most to us. Consider how much time you spent with your family over the past month and you will probably see reflected the priority you put on your family. As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Another lesson from “Cat’s in the Cradle” is that parents set the standard for how family time is prioritized. As portrayed in the song, the son grew up to be just like his father, who set an example of not spending time with his family.
In the article, “Importance of Family Time on Kids Mental Health and Adjustment to Life,” child psychiatrist Gail Fernandez writes, “Children from birth to adulthood need time and attention from their parents” (ChildDevelopmentInfo.com, January 4, 2012). She lists five benefits of time parents spend with their children:
Simply put, parents show that they value their children by spending time with them. When children feel that they are a priority, their place in the family is validated. Indeed, developing each child’s sense of belonging is one of the important purposes of family. As communication expert Deborah Tannen puts it, “Family represents a sense of belonging—a foundation for everything else we are or do. It feels that if we can fit into our families, we can fit into the world” (I Only Say This Because I Love You, 2002, p. xvi).
However, it is not only children who benefit from this connection. Parents learn the personalities and traits of their children as they take the time to get to know each child as a unique individual to be appreciated. If parents challenge themselves to love their children through positive engagement, their family will be closer—and stronger—as a result.
If this sounds like the family environment you would like to have, you can! There are many ways that your family can create an atmosphere of mutual nurturing that validates each member, but it will not happen accidentally. You must decide that you want to make this one of your highest priorities. In other words, you must be intentional in creating this type of family. Here are two suggestions that may help you accomplish this goal.
Every family is an independent group that builds its own culture on the collective preferences of its members. Much of this culture naturally and unconsciously develops over time, but other aspects of it should be intentionally guided. This is where creating traditions can shape the tone and identity—the culture—of a family.
According to Brett and Kate McKay of The Art of Manliness, “Traditions are behaviors and actions that you engage in again and again—regular rituals that you perform at the same time and/or in the same way. Traditions can be big or small, but they differ from routines and habits in that they are done with a specific purpose in mind and require thought and intentionality” (“Creating a Positive Family Culture: The Importance of Establishing Family Traditions,” 2013, artofmanliness.com).
The McKays also suggest that each family should have three types of traditions: daily traditions, weekly traditions, and traditions of family milestones. Every family has opportunities to intentionally create such traditions.
Perhaps the most important and obvious daily activity to make a family tradition is sharing meals together. Instead of shoveling in food on the run, or allowing mealtimes to be dominated by media devices, family members can make daily, shared meals the single most effective time to connect with each other.
According to The Family Dinner Project, “Over the past 15 years, research has shown what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression” (TheFamilyDinnerProject.org).
There are other daily rituals that can also become positive family traditions, such as reading to each other, singing together, taking evening walks, bedtime stories, etc. Don’t overlook asking the kids for ideas. The point is to create traditions that work for your family.
Members of a family may have sincere intentions to spend time together, but the busyness of life tends to take over. This is why purposefully scheduling family time is necessary. One of the easiest ways to do this is to designate a weekly family day or night, on which the family is focused upon being—and doing something—together.
There are so many activities a family can do during this scheduled time together, many of which are free. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
With a little creativity, the possibilities are endless!
One way to ensure variety is to have the members of your family take turns choosing weekly activities. You are only limited by your imagination. The point is to make the activity a priority by scheduling family time.
Don’t let “Cat’s in the Cradle” become your family’s theme song. Take the time now to make your family a priority!