A Well-Planned Family Life

Since we launched our 21st Century Family series in November, we've seen a theme emerge that sounds deceptively simple: Be mindful about what you and your family are doing.

Put another way, it means establishing a family life with intent, an underlying purpose to daily life and activities. That mindfulness manifests itself in a variety of ways.

It often means stopping for a moment and taking the time to look at the big picture in order to establish what your family's goals are. Take a break, turn off telephones, beepers, laptops and PDAs, walk away from e-mail, shut down the TV, and evaluate the family's activities and how well they fit with your family philosophy.

Once families have this 30,000-foot-view, they can get down to the details of planning how to implement the goals. You've got to have vision, but you also need a calendar and a to-do list (see our earlier story about family time management in the links above right) to help implement it.

For Lori Queisser of Indianapolis, Ind., who we interviewed for our story about dual-centric workers — those who successfully put emphasis on both home and family — the way to sketch out that big picture is to set out professional and personal goals. Queisser has an impressive resume. She's the mother of three and a vice president and chief compliance officer at Eli Lilly. But she got there by keeping all her goals in mind along the way.

"And one of mine is to be married once," she says.

From that goal flows a logical work-and-home-management style that includes setting boundaries between home and office and articulating those boundaries to her family and her employer. Knowing the importance of family life helped her enormously when she first went to work for Eli Lilly 14 years ago. She learned that her department had mandated Saturday hours. But she explained that, as a young mother, she would be at home on Saturdays with her new baby, not at the office. She came from a results-oriented office culture that didn't care where she did her work as long as she produced the desired result, and she started an open conversation with management about its goals. The results so far look good: She and her husband have been married for 19 years and she's risen steadily through the ranks at Eli Lilly at the same time.

Proactive, Not Reactive

Harold and Kathy Dahl, of Minneapolis, Minn., who we talked to for our story about building more fitness into your family's life, made a healthy lifestyle one of their family's goals. The couple had always been fitness oriented, but as they got older, Harold, who goes by the name Hod, realized that he had begun to let himself go. He and Kathy decided to get him back on track, not just for his own good, but for the good of their two children as well.

"We both felt it was important to give the kids a good role model," he says. And so began their family's fitness drive, which manifested itself throughout the family's life. They concentrated on eating better — fewer snacks and highly processed foods and more fruits and vegetables. They built in exercise throughout their lives, some scheduled, some fun — such as playing with a large exercise ball while watching TV. Because 21st century technology can breed couch potatoes, they initiated "technology-free" weekends and summers, an effort aided by the fact that they live on a lake. That meant no Gameboys, computers or television (although Hod Dahl admits that toward the end of the summer they broke down and allowed a limited amount of TV).

For families who opted to have dad stay at home while mom went to work, it was a decision made after thoughtful discussions about what these couples wanted for their families. "We knew we didn't want anybody else raising our child," says Steve Klem of Merritt, Fla., giving what was a typical response from families for which it made more economic sense for the mom to work than dad.

And so it went throughout the series, whether it was about having family dinners regularly, managing different religious traditions during the holidays or setting up household chores.

It's a matter of being proactive rather than reactive, says Mimi Doe, one of the experts we interviewed for some of the stories, and who took a look back for us at what we'd covered. Doe, a mother of two and author of books (Busy But Balanced and 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting) and online newsletters (www.spiritualparenting.com), says that it's important to live with intent.

"When we're proactive about everything — work, family, mind, body, spirit — it means that we're thoughtful and have a clear intention around what it is we wish to experience and what we wish our children to experience," she says.

James Morris, past president of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (whose reference Web site, www.therapistlocator.net, can help families locate family therapists in their area and has a wealth of helpful information for parents) and assistant professor of marriage and family at Texas Tech University in Fredricksburg, looked back over our series and said that often the stories went beyond the mechanics of everyday living.

They were about things like commitment and passion — husbands and wives commitments to each other and their commitments to their children. "It's almost spiritual," he says. Certainly, more prosaic things like planning and prioritizing are important, but that planning has to be based on some kind of philosophical foundation. For Morris it has meant making his relationship with his wife and their joint effort to raise their children in the best possible way their most important job.

"That's what I've placed at the zenith," he said. "Everything else pales by comparison. It's all interconnected."

But how to translate this almost spiritual effort into your every day life?

Tactics for Living Better as a 21st Century Family

Stop and examine your lives and think about what your family believes in. "We're so busy reacting to what comes up in our lives that very few — and I've interviewed thousands of parents through our newsletter — very few parents pause and examine their lives," says Doe. They think they don't have time, but it's a good way to keep the important things in life from being shoved onto the back burner.

Make sure that what you're doing supports what you believe in. Is child-rearing your most important goal? "If your activities don't contribute to that primary goal of raising your children, then you've got to look at them with some level of inquiry," says Morris.

The approach of spring makes it a perfect time to look at your family's schedule. How has it gone since school started? Are you feeling too scheduled? Do the kids have time for outdoor activities? "Sit down with your family and consciously manage your spring schedule," says Doe.

She suggests pulling out the calendar and using different colored markers for each child, planning activities for individuals as well as a family day or a family week. "Spring is the perfect time to spring clean, as it were, all the clutter around the family," says Doe. "Take charge of your family's schedule so it doesn't take charge of you." "Loiter with intent," says Janis Keyser, a mother of three, an educator and co-author of Becoming The Parent You Want to Be (www.becomingtheparent.com), another expert we returned to for this recap. It means planning time with your kids, without necessarily planning exactly what you'll do with that time. Keyser counsels parents to remember that your children, for all they seem intent on hanging out with their peers, need time with you. They may not express that need clearly; it might come across as irritability with you. She used to go into the weekend with her daughter by telling her she'd like to spend time with her — exactly what they did was less important than that they did it together. It meant her daughter could say to her friends, "OK, I have to spend time with my mom," while it gave Keyser an opportunity to show her daughter how important she was to her mother. It gave her daughter input on how the two would spend their time together, giving her some control over the situation as well. Remember that the child who is asking for a glass of water may actually be asking to talk to you.

Today is the source of memories and lessons for life. "I've got kids who are leaving home," says Keyser. "When your kids are at home you sort of think it's going to last forever. But it's not and this day-to-day interaction is the stuff that … memories get made out of and not only memories, but values." She points out that a parent might pick up a child who has had a bad day of school. The parent has all sorts of jobs to finish — laundry, banking, grocery shopping. But the child needs comforting. In those instances, says Keyser "what we need to do is pull over and hold them and say there's nothing really more important right now than being together. Opportunities avail themselves to us when we're least expecting them."