Ten ways to gather the scattered family flock

Whether one or both members of a couple work and whatever the ages of their children, most families are separated for large parts of the day. They find they don't know each other's friends and co-workers, that they lose track of what each is doing. But here are ways to bridge the gap between the outside world and home life.

1. Eat breakfast together.When everyone is rushed, it's easy to just to skip breakfast. But some families find that it's important to be together in the morning before separating for the day.

For late risers, set the table the night before and keep it simple (cold cereal with bananas or raisins and milk). Even the sleepiest-eyed person will get into the breakfast routine eventually.

Some families prefer an elaborate breakfast and find it easier when the whole crew helps make it. One mother of four says that her 10-year-old son sets the table and cracks an egg into a mixing bowl. "I take it from there," she says, "and make pancakes or French toast."

2. Establish rituals to get over the toughest spots of the day. One such rough spot is late afternoon/early evening while dinner is cooking. A late-afternoon break while supper is cooking can save tempers and avoid junk-food snacking. It could even be the first course of dinner -- a hot pot of cocoa or cider, plus cheese and crackers.

Such a teatime ritual can save tempers and bring the family together. And if the group is all in the same place, it is easier to encourage making dinner preparation a joint effort while everyone talks about the day.

3. Plan an expedition for the weekends, to places such as a museum, zoo, circus, or arboretum. This gives a focus to the week, something for the whole family to look forward to doing together. Try to avoid making it a bribe, but everyone should pitch in much more readily during the week if a special treat is in store for the weekend.

4. Avoid TV. Decide on a daily limit -- an hour a day could be a maximum -- and vote on which one-hour program or two one-half hour programs will be watched on any one day. (Naturally if there's a really good movie, that could be an exception.)

5. Share housework. The whole family should learn to make beds, sweep, and empty wastebaskets. And no one person should have to play drill sergeant, although charts and chore lists sometimes help.

Some unpleasant but necessary tasks can be made more enjoyable if they are not done alone. Someone can be washing and drying clothes while dinner is cooking, for example. After dinner, everyone can fold his or her own clothes while watching TV or talking. If it's thought of as an activity that increases family time rather than causing friction, even laundry can be semipleasant.

6. On the other hand, some things just about have to be solitary chores. Shopping, for instance. Have a family shopping list on the refrigerator and encourage everyone to list things on it. Then make up a shopping list using everyone's suggestions, taking the family budget into account also. But choose one of the adult members of the family to go shopping alone with the specials circular, coupons, and shopping list.

Taking the family together en masse to the supermarket is not likely to increase family harmony, but tends to have the opposite effect and is more expensive besides.

7. Take turns cooking. If everyone in the family develops specialties, no one person feels like a drudge and everyone can feel he or she is contributing to the family. Just be sure not to encourage prima donna cooks who need three assistants handing them tools and who refuse to wash a dish; that doesn't save time and it breeds resentment and martyrdom on all sides.

8. Keep a family calender. Hang a big calendar with lots of white space near the telephone. Be sure it is attached to the wall or a bulletin board so it doesn't "float" around the house. Everyone should write important activities on it well in advance. This avoids last-minute "Oh, I forgot to tell you, there's a PTA meeting tonight." It also makes it possible for anyone to call home and ask the date, time, or place of an activity. Whoever answers the phone can just check the calendar.

One couple have no children but find the household calendar a necessity for keeping track of each other, since both travel frequently. Without the calendar , they say, each would have trouble keeping track of what city the other is in.

9. Keep a family diary or history. Buy a beautiful blank-page book or scrapbook -- maybe every year as a family Christmas present -- and write in it often. You can paste in photos, postcards, even locks of hair or scraps of fabric. It can give a feeling of shared experience to the whole family.

10. Entertain informally but as frequently as possible. One sad side effect of how busy everyone is that it is increasingly difficult to find time to see old friends or to cultivate new friendships. You might want to consider having a very informal open house once a month and inviting your friends to stop by for very simple hors d'oeuvres. The children can also invite their friends and their friends' parents.

The point is to get to know your spouse's co-workers and your children's friends (as well as their parents), so that each of you has some entree into the life that the rest of the family lives as you all go about your separate lives.

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