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When I was growing up, our family had a weekly tradition called “special family night.” It usually consisted of reading a story together on the couch, having a special treat in the kitchen, and playing a game as a family before bed. These few simple activities were the highlight of our week, and even now, thirty years later, I still remember them vividly. I can recall the love, the closeness, and the significance of those precious times with my parents and two younger brothers. It brought a sense of belonging and security to me as I was growing up. To this day, I still look back on those special family nights as some of my best and most treasured childhood memories.
Now that I have a family of my own, I have a whole new appreciation for the effort and energy that my parents put into creating family memories. In today’s busy, noisy, non-stop culture, taking time to truly enjoy our families and build lifelong memories is no easy task. As a busy mother of six, it’s all too easy for me to fall into the trap of “survival mode” and just focus on getting through each day, instead of making each day special and meaningful. Keeping my energetic brood organized, clean, fed, and (relatively) well-behaved is more than a full-time job. Not to mention the pressures and demands of leading a ministry and meeting writing deadlines. When it comes to planning meaningful ways to build memories with my family, I sometimes feel like my energy and creativity have already been used up just getting through the day. Yet, I know how vitally important it is for our family to build lifelong bonds of unity. I don’t want our family to live under the same roof but never have our hearts knit together in the precious unity God intends us to have.
Last year, as I was struggling through this particular challenge, I read some of Amy Carmichael’s writings from the years when she was rescuing children from slavery in India and raising them as her own. Even though her ministry work was extremely intense, demanding, and dangerous, she felt it was important to build a special place for the children she was bringing up—an oasis of peace, laughter, and sweet memories. No matter how many weights she carried on her shoulders, Amy always took time to create special traditions, celebrations, and memorials with her adopted children. They grew up surrounded by love, peace, and security even in the midst of life-threatening peril. She wrote,
Our nursery is set in the midst of the battle-field. It is a little sheltered place, where no sound of war disturbs the babies at their play, and the flowers bloom like the babies in happy unconsciousness of battles, and make a garden for us and fill it full of peace…We are happy, light-hearted children with our children; sometimes we even wonder at ourselves; and then remember that the happiness of the moment is a pure, bright gift to be enjoyed as if there were no battles in the world or any sadness anymore. (from Lotus Buds)
Amy’s example helped me realize that no matter how intense life may seem, God desires me to take time to cherish and delight in the family He has given me. In fact, loving my husband and children is at the top of His list of what my priorities should be (see Titus 2:4). While I can certainly love them by tending to their daily needs, I must also love them by taking the time to cultivate a deep and lasting relationship with each and every one of them—no matter how stressful or busy life may get.
As I have asked God to help me excel in this area, there are several key principles He has awakened me to. Keeping these principles in mind has greatly helped me keep family memory-making a high priority even during times when it doesn’t seem realistic. Here are a few of them:
Being ministry leaders, Eric and I are acutely aware that we are in the midst of a very intense spiritual battle, with constant attention and harassment from the enemy. Fighting for souls, counseling people through serious life-or-death issues, working through financial challenges, making key decisions that affect hundreds of people, and responding to false accusation and betrayal are just a few of the things that have “come with the territory” of being in ministry. After being on the front lines all day long, it can be rather difficult to shift gears into a pleasant, peaceful, memory-making family time together.
Even moms who are not in ministry can struggle with this. Maybe you’ve planned a special time to be together as a family when suddenly you receive a phone call or email that distracts and upsets you. Or maybe financial pressures or marriage tension frequently disrupts your ability to relax and enjoy your family time. When distractions or worries are weighing heavily upon us, it can feel next to impossible to be energetic and invested into building family memories. In my experience, it seems that the enemy knows the importance of building close family relationships, so he goes out of his way to distract us with cares and worries the moment we attempt to focus on family time.
For me, bring proactive against distractions is a key part of having a successful family time. If I am carrying heavy spiritual burdens or emotional weights, I take a few moments to get alone and purposefully lay my cares at Jesus’ feet. It often helps me to make a list of exactly what concerns are on my heart, and then commit those things in prayer to the One who cares more about them than I ever could. I also take a few moments to ask God for the grace to lay aside my worries and truly soak up the precious time He has given me with my family. My goal is to be “all there” when I am with my children, rather than half of my attention being pulled in a different direction. When I entrust my cares to Him and rely upon His grace, it becomes possible for me to keep my focus in the right place—on my family—instead of on all the unresolved issues that may be swirling around in my mind.
I also find it crucial to put boundaries around time spent on devices—my phone, computer and iPad—because these are so often the source of distractions and concerns creeping in to my thoughts and emotions. Even positive communications that come in through these mediums can be distractions that disrupt special family time. An unexpected phone call from a friend who wants to chat, an invitation to a social event, or a piece of news from someone we are close to can often preoccupy our thoughts and make it difficult to focus on the task at hand—investing into our family relationships.
At a specific time each day, Eric and I lay aside our phones and refrain from sitting down at our computers, and we keep it that way for the rest of the evening so that we can focus on our family without distractions. When we are going on a family outing or spending a special time together building memories, we do not check our phones or email. As much as possible, we do not talk to each other about ministry issues, financial concerns, or work projects during family time. We labor to keep our focus completely on building relationships together and to tune out all other distractions. Not only do our children sense that they have our undivided attention, but it is also a refreshing break from the daily cares and weights that we carry.
In Set Apart Motherhood, I shared about going to a restaurant and coloring with our children while we waited for our food. The waitress commented how unusual it was seeing families interacting with each other. “Normally Mom and Dad are texting or checking email on their phones, and the kids are playing games on their devices too. Families don’t talk to each other anymore,” she mused sadly.
Her comments reminded me afresh of how important it is to remove distractions in order to truly invest into our family relationships. In twenty years, what will matter more—checking the latest posts on Facebook, or having a meaningful conversation with one of our kids? Even in our noisy, social-media-driven world, my goal is to keep my focus on what really matters—by God’s grace.
Being a perfectionist, I’m often tempted to buy the lie that I need to plan something elaborate in order for our family to build lasting memories, like a trip to a theme park or an exciting party. But in reality, the simple things seem to be the most meaningful. As I said in Set Apart Motherhood:
A hike in the woods or a rock-skipping session at a nearby lake can become a memory that will last a lifetime. So can a cup of hot chocolate and a story on the couch. You don’t need a trip to Disneyland to create precious memories with your children. What your kids want most of all is thoughtful, focused, and purposeful time with you.
I try to keep this principle in mind, even when I don’t have time to plan anything for family time. Simple activities such as singing together around the piano, sharing stories from when we were young, or doing a whacky round-robin tale can be special and meaningful. I’ve had to remind myself that I don’t need to be an early childhood education expert to think of creative and effective activities to do with my kids. Spending time and energy being with my kids and building relationships with them is what really matters. What we actually do together is secondary.
I find it helpful to think outside the box when it comes to spending time together as a family. While it’s not practical or necessary to spend hours planning and preparing for family time, having a list of fun, creative, easy ideas can be a great help when I’m short on time or ingenuity. I shared in Set Apart Motherhood about one of the tools I use for this purpose:
Recently, I started a “family fun” notebook to help me out when I need inspiration. Anytime I see an article or flyer that gives me a great idea for something we can do together as a family, I add it to the notebook. It’s so much easier to flip open to pages of ideas, directions, costs, and inspirational photos than to sit staring blankly out the window trying to think of something creative for our family to do together.
I’d like to share a few of the simple, creative actives that our family has enjoyed in the past year. Feel free to steal them or allow them to spark creative ideas of your own!
Puppets: I helped the kids make their own home-made hand puppets (you could use a kit or just decorate a sock that is no longer needed). After their puppets were completed, the kids put on an improv puppet show for Mommy and Daddy in the living room.
Bubble Party: I shared this idea in Set Apart Motherhood:
I filled up our water table with bubble solution and let the kids use straws and bubble wands to make all shapes and sizes of bubbles. I made chocolate milk and let them blow bubbles in it (a special one-time privilege). We read about the science of bubbles. We did a bubble art project involving bubble solution and colored tempura paint. Yes, it was a mess, but it was worth it for the fun we had. Last, I put bubble wrap on the floor and let the kids jump on it and pop the bubbles.
Movie on the Porch: Using a video projector and old sheet, we created a mini outdoor movie theater. We let the kids get cozy on our back porch with blankets and pillows, then ate popcorn and watched a special family movie under the stars.
Candy Land with Candy: We used real candy such as m&m’s and licorice to make the classic game Candy Land more exciting! We made up rules as to when and how each player could earn the privilege of eating a sweet treat, making sure they each go their fair share by the time the game ended!
Cookie Decorating: No matter what the season, there is always a themed sugar cookie to go along with it. In the spring, we decorate ducks, bunnies, and flowers, in the summer we decorate animals (because we always go to the zoo in summer), in the fall we decorate leaves and pumpkins, at Christmas we decorate stars and pine trees, and near Valentine’s Day we decorate hearts. I let the kids help cut out the cookie shapes, and once they are done baking the family gathers around the table and creates edible masterpieces, using colored icing and several varieties of colored sprinkles. (Since a lot of these items get eaten in the process, I’ve discovered some relatively healthy ways to make this special treat!)
Worms: This past summer, the kids and I had a great time building home-made worm farms and then catching worms in the backyard to inhabit them. (There are lots of great ideas online for how to do this.) Each day we would look to see how our little critters were getting along and what they were up to in their new homes. The kids even named their worms (“Hermy,” “Wormy,” and “Princess” were among them). We let them go after a few days (and a couple of them sadly did not survive the experience) but it was an exciting adventure each step of the way!
Backyard Treasure Hunts: We often hide a “treasure” in the backyard and give the kids clues to finding it. It doesn’t really matter what the treasure is—the adventure of figuring out the clues and the thrill of finding the treasure is what makes this activity fun!
Cucumber Boats: Our kids love making simple cucumber boats and then taking them to a stream to watch them float! Another fun alternative is to play “pooh sticks” where each child selects a twig and drops them into a stream from over a bridge, then runs to watch them float out the other side and see whose twig is the fastest.
There are lots of other fun, simple, affordable, creative ideas online and in books—some of my favorite go-to resources are the DIY section at www.kiwicrate.com, and the Busy Book series by Trish Kuffner.
Persecuted Church Night: Voice of the Martyrs has some wonderful resources for helping children become acquainted with the needs of persecuted Christians around the world. We often adapt their Kids of Courage VBS material for a powerful family time that is built around learning about the underground church, praying for persecuted Christians, and writing letters of encouragement to Christians who have been imprisoned for their faith. Through these times, our children have gained a love and concern for their persecuted brothers and sisters around the world and our family has grown in unity and developed a common burden.
Make an Orphan Tree: We printed out several pictures of orphans and waiting children around the world. The kids cut out their pictures and glued them to paper leaves. Then we made a small tree using twigs from the backyard, potting soil, and a small planting dish. We attached each “leaf” to a different branch of the tree. We prayed for each one of the orphans on our orphan tree, and put it in a place in the house where we would remember to pray for them often. This simple activity helped make the needs of orphans far more personable to our kids.
Heroes of the Faith: We often read a story or watch a TorchLighters movie about a Christian hero of the faith, then discuss it together as a family. As an extra fun bonus, I sometimes make a special snack that goes along with whatever part of the world that Christian hero was from.
Bible Story Adventures: For this activity, our kids all sit on the couch with Daddy and get into their imaginary time machine. They vote on which Bible character they would like to meet, then Daddy selects one child to push the button that blasts them back into history. Once they exit the couch, they walk around the house and find themselves in the midst of a Bible story adventure. Without using any props or other materials, the kids’ imaginations run wild. They have spent the night in the lion’s den with Daniel and hidden in caves with King David. These imaginary adventures not only help the Bible come to life, but are just as entertaining (if not more so) than any book or movie ever could be!
I’m Sorry Nights: We stumbled upon this activity one evening (read my article on Raising Joyful Kids in Joyful Mothering for details) but it has now become an important family tradition. Taking time to make things right with each other keeps our family relationships clear and builds closeness and unity like nothing else. We always end these nights with prayer and expressions of love and appreciation for the family members God has given us.
If you feel weary and uncreative when it comes to building family memories, let me first encourage you that you are not alone! I often feel the very same way. But I have learned that when I turn to God for supernatural grace and creativity, He comes to my aid and gives me the ability to build memories with my family that will last a lifetime—and He can do the same for you. Happy memory-making!
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