Putting Family First by William Doherty and Barbara Carlson

Putting Family First

Halfway through this spring, during a week of practically living out of our minivan and eating dinners on the run due to a parade of soccer games, drama rehearsals, and tae kwon do practices, I said to myself, “Enough. I want to get off this ride!” I picked up Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World, by William Doherty and Barbara Carlson, and devoured it in the next 2 days. Doherty and Carlson first trace the evolution of the overscheduling of today's kids and then provide concrete steps for reclaiming family time. I found myself nodding along to almost every chapter and came away with some great suggestions for how to streamline our outside commitments and reconnect as a family.

Doherty points out there are positive reasons why kids are busier today - like more opportunities to choose from - but also several that are negative, like more intense sports schedules, fear that children will be left behind if they don’t engage from an early age, and parental guilt due to long work schedules. Whatever the reasons, Doherty stresses that the end result is that “the adult world of hypercompetition and marketplace values has invaded the family.” What to do about it? The first step is to slow down and reconnect over family meals, optimally four times a week or more. The second is to reclaim bedtime as a soothing ritual. And the third step is to look critically at the schedule, cut back on outside obligations, and find time to “hang out as a family.”

Since our family life has long been dictated by a complex calendar, the prescription to “just hang out” seemed somewhat daunting and unrealistic. But Doherty’s warning words soon convinced me to give it a try: “In today’s highly scheduled families, many children and parents seem to be losing their ability to hang out together. Unaccustomed to entertaining themselves, kids complain of being bored, and parents feel responsible for entertaining them.” When families hang out you get “the chance for spontaneous connection,” the opportunity for play, and the strengthening of sibling relationships. Unstructured time together as a family is something we’re going to try more often this summer.          

This book is not just for two-parent families. There are chapters for single parents and stepfamilies as well. Although it was published a decade ago in 2002, I find much of what Doherty says is relevant to our life today, if not more so. If you find yourself wanting to get off the carousel of overscheduled commitments and crave a slower, more balanced pace, pick up Putting Family First.