Time and the family

May 15, 2008

I wrote a blog post back in April titled Loss of mealtime: Is it important? In this post I discussed research data on family mealtime that indicated family life was changing. Of course there are many other indicators we could use to assess how families are changing.

Some might quickly respond that change isn't always bad either. And, it's probably worth saying up front that the Bible doesn't seem to dictate a set recipe for daily family life - you'll be hard pressed to find guidance on how many meals we should have together as a family, how much time should be devoted to play and so on. But there is teaching about our responsibilities as parents and the priority that we need to place on the nurture, care and teaching of our children. And while I don't see a picture in the Bible of families giving up useful work to blissfully waste time together, there is a clear message in Scripture that it is within the family that children are primarily nurtured and taught about God. As part of everyday life children are shaped and marked for a life of obedience to him (Deut 6:4-25). The Israelites were not only to obey God's commands, decrees and laws, they were to understand and demonstrate that they loved the Lord with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their strength. They were also to teach Gods commands, laws and decrees to their children as part of life in all its forms. God's word was to be an important part each individual's life and that of family life together.

However, if families spend little time together this is made more difficult. Numbers of people have commented that modern life seems to be working against families spending time together. Recently, the principal of Presbyterian Ladies College (Sydney), Dr William McKeith, commented on the impact of work on family time. He suggested, as I have in other posts, that the mad pace of modern life is having a negative impact on families. He cited an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report on how Australians use their time which indicates that "..we are spending less time playing, sleeping, and eating and drinking, but longer working." The ABS survey shows how patterns of time use have changed and indicates that people are becoming increasingly time poor and that working non-standard hours and bringing work home is having an impact.

His personal comments on the pace of life ring true:

"We can feel it and see it all around us. Hairdressers are often open into the night, international banks are conducting business on combined southern and northern hemisphere time, emails and text messages find us day and night, seven days a week.

"When we adults are busy filling our days and nights with more and more work, where are all the children? Might I suggest that many of the social and emotional challenges confronting our young people are grounded in the work patterns of we, their parents. Parents are not available to supervise the use of the internet and video games, to check on the appropriateness of friendships, to visit the school, to welcome the child in from school. We are tired, stressed, irritable much of the time. Some parents will seek out ways of avoiding contact with their children in order to minimise their exposure to these feelings."

A more worrying feature of the report cited is that according to the ABS survey approximately 25% of children (17 and under) have a parent living elsewhere (perhaps interstate or overseas) and that there are increasing numbers of children in boarding schools who rarely see their parents.

Dr McKeith concluded:
"There is a tension between hours and patterns of work and family values and the care of our children. As a force for the protection of family values and community welfare, government has a role to play. I suspect that in the interests of our children we are well overdue for a realistic appraisal of how we are balancing our work and family lives."

While there are families living in poverty for whom there is no possibility of reducing hours of work if they are to cover the essentials of life (food, basic shelter and daily needs), for many families there are options for reduced hours or for more flexible work arrangements. Dr McKeith suggests that the process used for making life choices may need to place a higher priority on the needs of children and the impact on family life more generally. The issues surrounding why parents are working longer hours are complex, but it would seem that we make daily decisions about careers, the size of mortgages, overseas holidays, private schools, entertainment and so on, that have economic and human costs that are (at least in part) borne by our families. And yet, for many of us, there is freedom to make other choices.

There seem to be two key parts to the impact we have on our children:

* the wisdom of the choices we make as parents and the example we provide - the patterns we set for work and life are the most significant example that will influence how our children see life/work balance (of course some of us saw the example of parents and made better choices later in life, but none of us want to be model negative examples);
* how much time we spend with them and what we do with the time that we share - What do we teach them and how we do it? Primarily our goal is to teach them about God, encourage them to follow Jesus and help them to understand how this should shape their lives. As Proverbs 22:6 teaches, our early training makes a difference for life - "Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it".

Of course, I think we can achieve the above even in the midst of busy lives, but we need to constantly assess the choices we are making and the way we spend our time. The key is to constantly ask ourselves two questions: What impact are my life patterns, choices and use of time having on my relationship with God? What impact is my life and the way I use my time having on the spiritual welfare of my family?

You can read Dr McKeith's full Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece here or a version that appeared in the Brisbane Times here.

You can also read a more recent blog post on family life on my Literacy, families and learning blog HERE that has relevance to the content of this post

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