Adopted Child by Lois Melina
The holiday season is a time when families gather, share traditions, and build memories. If family time is filled with joy, we may wonder how to replicate it throughout the year. But when our holidays are not as happy as we’d like them to be, we may ask ourselves how to change family dynamics.
Adoptive families may be particularly sensitive to whether the family unit is cohesive, with all members feeling connected. Many of our families don’t look the way we imagined they might; most of us work at creating bonds that others take for granted.
One strategy is to set aside one evening a week for your family. Pick a day of the week when everyone eats dinner together. After dinner, hold a “family meeting” to discuss the business of being a family. Follow the meeting by a recreational activity.
Family night gives parents and children an opportunity to build memories without the stress of holidays, to share what is going on in their lives, and to solve problems.
For the family with several children or with both adopted and biological children, family night can help assure that no member of the family feels like an outsider because his interests are different or because others gravitate to one another.
Planning Family Night
If you are the mom of the family, chances are you will be the one who decides to make family night happen. Don’t. Everyone will be more invested if they help plan it. Rotate the planning among family members each week. If you have very young children, you can create “teams,” pairing a younger child with a parent or older sibling.
The person or team responsible for family night chooses the dinner menu and prepares the meal. Be prepared for boxed macaroni and cheese or for teens trying out vegan diets. And you may be surprised at how capable some family members are in the kitchen. The failed dinner will merely become a family story.
The Business Part
If you are the one who knows when the soccer games, piano lessons, choir practices, and ballet recitals are, you will like the business part of the family meeting. This is when everyone outlines his or her schedule. Transportation arrangements are made and schedule conflicts identified. The next meeting is scheduled.
The next item on the agenda is recognition. Family members thank each other, comment on successes, praise good efforts. You may want to keep this free-wheeling, but you also can formalize it, making sure every member takes a turn. It can be powerful for the youngest child to discover that her older sister noticed the effort she was making to complete her math homework or for older siblings to realize how much the younger ones observe them.
After “recognition time,” family members talk about what’s going on in their lives. Children may talk about a friend who is moving away, an upcoming test, or the hope to make a varsity squad. Adults may talk about deadlines they have at work, progress they are making on a quilt, or a frustrating coworker. While parents shouldn’t burden their children with adult problems, children usually know when something is going on. It can be a relief to learn that the bad mood Mom’s been in lately has nothing to do with them.
If you have difficulty getting this part of the family meeting started, have everyone express the “best” and the “worst” thing that happened that week. This is also the time for accountability. The parent who promised to attend a school event but forgot about it can apologize. So can the child who took a sibling’s personal item without asking. Some families set goals for the week during this time—to exercise, turn homework in on time, limit computer use—and enlist each other’s assistance in reaching them.
The family meeting should be a safe place to talk about what’s going on. Some families use a “talking stick” to remind others not to interrupt the speaker or offer unsolicited advice. When the person speaking has finished, she can tell the rest of the family whether she wants advice or assistance.
After everyone has had a chance to speak, the family can address family matters, such as ideas for an upcoming vacation. You may find out that nobody really likes the quaint ski lodge the family goes to each December. This is the time to talk about the solution to conflict over computer use or to discuss the changes that a new child might bring. Solutions are easier to find when the entire family has had a chance to speak. By involving everyone, parents avoid the “divide-and-conquer” tactic of children and adolescents, and children build problem-solving skills.
Parents should make it clear, nonetheless, that holding family meetings doesn’t mean that the family is now a democratic organization. While they may be willing to hear opinions, they will make the final decisions.
Time for Fun
After sharing and discussion are over, it is time for fun. The person responsible for planning that week’s family night also chooses the recreational activity. This could be a board game, a walk to the ice cream parlor, or an evening at the bowling alley. Whatever the choice, it should be interactive. An evening watching TV or a video doesn’t usually create togetherness. However, for some families—especially those with teenagers resistant to being on the same planet as their parents, much less being seen in public with them—an evening watching a DVD may be as close to “togetherness” as they are going to get. A weekly ritual of “pizza and a movie” may be the answer. With this exception, family members’ willingness to agree to the recreational choice of others, without making judgments about its entertainment value, is what makes the planner feel important.
Children are likely to choose activities at which they excel, and family night becomes a time when they get to show off their prowess. Those whose interests are markedly different can share their enthusiasm in a structured setting without feeling that they must conform in order to be accepted.
Over the course of a year, the family will likely find activities that they all enjoy—paintball, ice skating, puzzles.
The biggest roadblock to weekly “family night” is the busyness of families today. Of course, this is also what creates the need to connect. If your family is willing to designate a regular night of the week for the event, to have it regardless of invitations, sports events, or American Idol, you’ve overcome the strongest impediment.
However, it is possible to have a family night that “floats” from week to week. You may find it useful to designate the same night each week as a “default” so that parents and children plan their schedules around it, but agree to reschedule if a truly unavoidable conflict arises. If evenings are impossible because of a parent’s work schedule, make your family time Sunday or Saturday afternoon.
And, if you have young children with short attention spans, by all means modify the business part of the meeting, perhaps comparing calendars later after they have been tucked in.
Some divorced families find it possible—and valuable—to include both parents in a modified family night. One family I know used the time when children were transferred from one parent to another to sit down and talk about schedules and other concerns. Thus, both parents stay in the loop about the children’s activities.
If your family finds that, week after week, there is no one time when you are all willing or able to get together, you’ve received some valuable information. And, if one family member persistently can’t find time to meet, it’s possible that this person needs more attention to feel part of the family. Like the canary in the mine shaft, what goes on at a family meeting can be an early signal of unity gone awry.
Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to have a family night. The value of these times together is to empower family members to express themselves. As they do, the family grows closer because they understand one another better.
Lois Melina’s Adopted Child newsletter, now published exclusively in Adoptive Families magazine, has an international reputation as a trusted resource for adoptive parents. Melina is a director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
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