the perfect year
doing family on purpose
all material copyrighted by Clark H Smith
Years ago, a friend of mine threw a birthday party for his son at SeaWorld in Texas. The invitation read, “Having fun at Christopher’s party is no accident. We’re doing it on Porpoise!”
There is an old saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” That is true for every endeavor of life, not just careers or financial plans. Good things happen when we have purpose. I believe our families are our greatest blessing from God and accordingly, our family dynamics deserve our best, purposeful planning.
As we go through the days of our lives, we have experiences that shape our lives for decades into the future. Our emotions and memories and treasures are the munitions of life that equip us for healthy living – within ourselves and with others. We have the choice to live our family lives in a chain-reaction, days-flying-past, “accidental” sort of way, or we can invest time, thought, and energy into creating the events and experiences that will feed a happy, healthy family for generations.
Rather than thinking about what I would do if I had “one year to live”, I prefer toto ponder The Perfect Year – 365 days of celebration and creativity that blesses the years of our lives. The following are some thoughts and suggestions about what it would take to achieve The Perfect Year.
Perhaps the most important resource in accomplishing The Perfect Year is a calendar – marked in advance (leaving room for spontaneity) with all the events that your family will encounter on the way to the most memorable year of your lives.
Celebrate the Passing Year
signs & seasons / equinoxes & solstices / moon phases
The physical world around us is the source and signal of the passing of time. Note on your calendar all the moon phases, blue moons,harvest moons, eclipses, solstices (longest and shortest daylight days of the year, about June 21 and December 21), equinoxes (equal daylight, darkness days of the year, about March 21 and September 21). Celebrate these events. Read a newspaper at night by the light of a full moon, hold your hand in front of your face on a new moon night. Mark the location of the sunrise and sunset on the solstices and equinoxes. Trying rising with sun and retiring with the sun on the solstices! (If you live on the equator, no big deal, but any Alaskan resident will tell you it is next to preposterous!) Build your own sundial. Place a rain gauge in your yard and keep track of precipitation throughout the year. Participate in the seasonal events in your region. Mark the Opening Day of each seasonal sport played in your area – attend and / or play the games as you can.
As the seasons change, let each family member contribute observations and evidences of the passing of one season and the coming of the next. Make a place in your home where the first green leaf or flower can be clipped and shared indoors. Mark on the calendar when the first spring bird was seen, when someone got the first mosquito bite of summer, when the first icicle was spotted or snowball thrown. Develop a list of funny or sage sayings, “You know it’s summer when… “
holidays / seasonal décor
Many families decorate for Christmas. Halloween, Easter, perhaps Thanksgiving brings a special touch to the home as well. Think about all the Holidays. Hang a flag for Independence Day, plant flowers on Memorial day, plant a tree on Arbor Day. Do you have a decorative wreath in or on your home. Change it monthly or seasonally to reflect the culture and appeal of the period. Do you have a decorated mantel, a table centerpiece? Let all family members participate in choosing and creating the décor or assign each month or season to different family members and learn how they celebrate. Make themed piñatas for the holidays, fill with theme items. These are also great ideas to share with members of the extended family, friends, neighbors, etc. Sharing is key to what makes for a great celebration.
Another way of marking the passing of seasons is to “bet” on when the first snowfall will come. In January, throw a big rock on a frozen pond and guess what day it will disappear. Heighten then tension by letting the winner get out of a household chore. Guess what month the heaviest rainfall will occur. Tie a string around the stem of the leaf and record guesses of when that one will fall off the tree. Let the winners of these friendly wagers get dessert when you all eat out or afford them some recognition for being the “best guesser.”
Also, think purposefully about the meaning of the holidays and share those. List or depict the things for which family members are thankful at Thanksgiving. Discuss (or dig out) favorite gifts at Christmas. Talk about the things that give you hope at Easter. Celebrate the things demonstrate your freedom on Independence Day. Send an open letter of thanks to the local VFW on Veterans Day for their sacrifice in defending your country and your freedoms.
Your family may also want to investigate the history of certain holidays. Christmas is an amazing amalgam of many cultural traditions than can add richness to your celebration of it. Perhaps the ethnic legacy of your family has some unique holiday celebrations which have been lost to your generation. Introduce an old custom like a yule log at Christmas, or have a “tea party” on the Fourth of July. Attend culturally diverse celebrations of common holidays and make unique memories that will shape holidays for years to come.
birthdays / anniversaries
At first thought, little needs to be said about celebrating birthdays. Our culture seems to throw enough at these events with cards, cakes, parties, presents – the older we get it becomes clearer that there is too much celebration! But a birthday should mark the birth and life of the person honored, not just be a big party. Let each family member write or depict the uniqueness of each person and their contributions to the family – a big brother who changes bike wheels, mom who cooks a delicious cookies, dad who plays with fire! – there are so many things to celebrate about each person. Collect these celebrations and make a book or supercard for them. Use photos or family-drawn illustrations to add life to the collection. Remark on the accomplishments and milestones over the last year and wish them well for the coming year on key adventures. All together, this will make a true celebration of each members attainment of a new year and it will provide the kind of memory that never fades from the heart, eye, or mind.
Add anticipation to the coming seasons of the year by presenting family members with “Don’t open until…” gifts. For the last few years, I have taunted my snow-loving wife with presents labeled, “Don't open 'til the first snowflake flies.” As I write this in early December, there is a bright green package on my wife’s night stand that teases “Open on St. Patrick’s Day” (it’s a coffee table book of gorgeous Ireland, our wannabe home).
Consider the things that each family member cherishes about each season, holiday, or annual event. Gifts could be a new set of BBQ gear for the chef on Memorial Day, gardening tools on May Day, camping gear marking the end of school, binoculars for football season, a GPS device (or warm gloves!) on the first day of hunting season… anything is possible for every occasion throughout the year. The principle is simple; consider the interests of your family members and lay aside a present not to be opened until the indicated day or event. Presents like this are very important. They don’t have to be expensive and if “it’s the thought that counts” then these count double because they say “I love you” long before (and after) they are opened!
Celebrate the Home Team
The modern family is identified primarily by shared “tags” – the last name, familial looks, perhaps a peculiar accent or vocabulary. Our address and phone number also match other family members, but that hardly helps develop a strong family bond and identity. Let’s think about some ways to create that identity.
family t-shirts / sweatshirts
For several years, a feature of our family vacations included custom t-shirts. We have also noted that
Where to wear those snappy new t-shirts? There are as many variations on the family vacation as there are families. Our goal is create the most memorable ones. Most families have learned that the big, high dollar destinations and events usually come in second to vacations that thoroughly involve all family members and create lasting memories. Consider a theme vacation rather than a specific event or destination. On the plains of the Midwest families can take wagon train vacations where everyone pitches in on chores, sleep in tents, and each off the chuck wagon. Every area of the nation is close to river rafting with similar opportunities for all family member to participate. Right now, our family is working on the details of an excursion train vacation. Across America, there are many preserved trains running short excursions across the local countryside. Some include meals and entertainment with a local flair. None may run through DisneyWorld, but what a rich experience this would provide. There are similar opportunities for riverboat excursions. Your memory vacation could combine modes of transportation like ballooning, boating, small aircraft, etc. (Here's a nice listing of some themed vacations in the American West.)
What are the collective interests of your family? What themes could you develop around those interests? Consider an Italian Restaurant tour through towns in a given area. (Just go to Google Maps and search for "Italian Restaurants" - new location will pop up as you move around on the map.) Travel to see Monet exhibits in regional museums. Factory tours, scenic vistas, regional crafts or foods – think out loud with all the members of your family to discover the things that bring joy and pleasure and build a vacation than focuses on those opportunities. The goal is to celebrate the uniqueness of your family and to create memories that emphasize those uniquenesses.
AND!… Our family had preserved the memory of our vacations by getting recipes for favorite dishes. Vacations usually require eating out (even on wagon trains). Eat somewhere besides big chains and fast food stops. Small, local restaurants are usually complimented when asked for recipes for dishes you enjoy. We picked up a great Italian sausage chowder restaurant in Wisconsin and we discovered a whole new single-dish “skillet” dinner at Silver Dollar City in the Ozarks. Now, as we have those meals throughout the year, we are reminded of great memories shared.
If you are driving to your vacation destination, make it interesting. License plate collecting is interesting for a limited age of children. In-car games get old and you can watch videos at home – so soak up the country side! Before a recent long weekend trip, we made a list of rare and random things to look for on our journey – and we put a bounty on them. (Websites of your desitination will likely provide lots of "what to look for" type information.) The first one to see and call out the thing earned the bounty. We listed some things that we thought we were likely to see; a golf-ball shaped water tower, a furniture factory, a grocery store truck. Spotting those likely or common things earned fifty cents or a dollar. We listed the more exotic things as well - a native wild animal, an animal not native to our continent (ostrich and emu farms are popping up everywhere and within an hour from our town is a significant herd of camels… so it’s possible). Spotting the rare sight was worth up to five dollars. Since we were driving across Oklahoma (of necessity, not choice) we even connected a bounty to the history of the state; a cowboy riding horse was worth two bucks and if he (or she!) was roping a cow it was worth five. You should have heard the clamor in the car when, in a pasture next to the interstate, a cowboy came galloping up the fence line at a blistering pace. What’s more, he had rope in hand and was aiming at a big calf. We all shrieked with joy. Alas, the calf took a hard turn and the rope never flew. That incident (and the preparation behind it) made for a truly memorable moment on an otherwise humdrum journey. By the way, mom spotted the cowboy!
Note: Putting a monetary bounty on things was great because the kids earned pocket money for snack and souvenirs along the way. We limited how many a person could collect in a row and altogether. You could set different bounties - preferential seating arrangements, choice of restaurant or dessert at one, anything that blessed the individual without diminishing the privileges and preferences of others.
Many years ago, we planned a summer vacation to Wisconsin. (It turned out to be one of the most memorable places (and people!) we have ever visited or lived.) To help the children develop enthusiasm for the trip – and to bribe some participation out of them beforehand – we offered “Sconny Bucks.” (Wi-scon-sin, get it?) Just using our simple word processor and printer we laid out a fancy border about the size of a dollar bill, added a few silly words, and an outline of the state of Wisconsin instead of a president’s face. Good deeds and extra chores were rewarded with Sconny Bucks; each worth a quarter or so. By the time the actual vacation rolled around, the kids were hyped and well-heeled. (We cashed the Sconny Bucks into real dollars as we began our first leg of the journey.) The month or so of anticipation and working for Sconny Bucks helped whet their appetite for the trip as well as ensure a positive experience during the trip. And, once again, mom and dad didn’t have to shell out a wad of dollar bills at every convenience store and souvenir shop.
parent / child dates
Within the context of The Perfect Year and the dynamic of the entire family, it is important to cultivate the specialness of each family member. A great way to do this is to take your children, one by one, on dates – either with one parent or both. These dates can happen randomly or on a planned basis; once a month, three times a year – whatever the family budget and schedule allow. Dates preceding big events for the child can be especially meaningful. Consider a date before the start of the school year, before beginning a part-time job (which further diminishes family time available to teens), before going away to summer camp. Follow-up dates can be equally as meaningful. Grade reports are an excellent opportunity for parent-child getaway time. Review a sports season, mend a broken heart, address discipline issues, just celebrate life – parent / child dates are excellent opportunities to (re)build the bonds that truly make the family strong. Although perhaps more difficult to schedule in larger families, that is where they may have even greater impact.
family outings / field trips
After school functions, sports practices and games, church, community, and social engagements there is often little energy left on Saturday morning to wake up and say “let’s go do something special today.” You are as likely to get a groan as agreement. Nonetheless, family outings and impromptu excursions are very important for creating a dynamic, positive sense of family. Specifically because our lives are so filled with activities for individual members of the family, we must create opportunities to play together.
One thrilling day of play that we have invented is called “Breaking All the Rules Day” (BARD). Totally at random, without prior warning, we’ll announce that BARD has arrived and throw the whole family (or whoever is available) in the van and head out. We can commit as little as a couple of hours or truly take the whole day.
Our play is as random as the name suggests – we don’t have to have an agenda or a destination (those are rules for the ordinary day!). One favorite way to set our path is to pick out some prominent point on the local horizon and head that way. The fun is in the journey. All the kids are encouraged to keep a look out as mom or dad drive and announce if the see anything of interest along the way. These jaunts are totally unpredictable and we may never complete our original heading, but we’re having fun. Think about it, as you are rushing to school, church, soccer practice, or the mall the kids usually look out the window at interesting sights and wish out loud they could go there sometime – well, this is finally “sometime.”
Another happy thing about BARD is, within the realm of sanity, there are no rules. We can have sodas before lunch, eat waffles for dinner, and perhaps even burp in the car. The goal is to have intentionally have fun (and coincidentally reinforce the rules by occasionally breaking them – or at least bending them out of shape!). With four boys in tow, we find ourselves stopping at military surplus stores, used car lots, ice cream vendors, and the gray market fireworks that most towns tolerate. If girls predominate, drag dad dress shopping (that’s definitely breaking all the rules – and good for him!). Perhaps the whole family will wind up at a minor league ball game, a concert of local bands, or grab a cheap fishing pole and drown some worms at a local pond.
When we BARD, snacks in the car are readily tolerated, kids' noisy music is played a little louder, and we never say “hurry up” or “come on.” We are NOT rude; we do not tolerate inappropriate behavior or attitudes, or otherwise transgress the boundaries that make up the moral fabric of our family. But we do have fun.
Family outings can be intentional as well. Most large cities have books, magazines, newspapers, and websites providing suggestions on excellent day trips. It is amazing what mysteries and curiosities surround our routine habitat. What would interest your family? A wounded animal hospital is often full of local, but seldom seen beasts. What galleries feature local artists? What sites tell the history of your region? Is there an interpretive museum that would explain the exploration and settlement of your area? Local agriculture production and processing is a mainstay across America – visit a grain mill, a tractor manufacturer, a working ranch, a butter or cheese factory, stop at a roadside fruit stand and each peaches ‘til the juice runs down your arm! We’re not much on drinking whiskey, but a stop at the Wild Turkey distillery in Kentucky still echoes in our minds… and our noses! Almost every region has wineries – teetotalers would miss out on a rich American tradition by neglecting these at destinations. We have also found that micro-breweries are reliable sources of excellent root beer.
If you live in the country, plan a day of play in the city. If you live in the ubiquitous suburban sea of houses and strip malls, gas up the van and spend the day bee-bopping around the countryside. Eat at a local diner instead of Dairy Queen. Visit a butcher shop for fresh meat or a unique sausage. Rural antique stores, flea markets, and farmer’s markets still hold promise for wanderers young and old.
The point is, life is more than Sears, Wal-Mart, and the local school district, and the inter-state highway system. Find a back road, find the kids, and find some memories on a rare day of family play. (Take along the cameras and journals and add to the legacy that we’ll discuss below.)
family service project
And the family need not only play together. There are more than enough opportunities for the family to work and serve together, as well. While it may be easier to hop in the mini-van and play, a healthy family should celebrate acts of service, appreciation, and ministry to truly create a lasting sense of value and significance.
Most churches have a long list of people who need assistance in one form or another. Find something that connects with your family’s interests. You could work together to cook a complete meal for a shut in or just go grocery shopping for them. Home fix-up chores are challenging for elderly and handicapped, but a real adventure for a family. Raking leaves, planting spring flowers, clearing trees and shrubs, vacuuming and dusting, replacing light bulbs, moving furniture, tuning up a car… the possibilities are endless.
Is there a soup kitchen where your family might volunteer? Soup kitchens do not just serve panhandling old men; young families with children also need a helping hand. What an impact this service would have on your children, teaching them to appreciate what they have and to share time and treasures with others.
Is there a neighborhood park which needs sprucing up? Most homes associations and municipalities has a bare bones budget which won’t get the job done without volunteer labor. Helping maintain local amenities will teach valuable lessons that will last a lifetime – and it might connect at home with cleaning up the bedroom! We tend to take for granted the things that others provide for us. Taking initiative to improve our neighborhoods teaches interdependence, participation, and sacrificial service – moral attributes that build a healthy society.
Another way to think about serving is to bless those who serve us sacrificially. We once lived a block away from a fire station. While pre-school boys thrilled at every siren blast, mom and dad knew that men and women were putting their lives at risk to protect ours. When Christmas time rolled around, we all worked together to make our favorite Christmas cookies and took them to the station on Christmas Day. I can’t tell you who was blessed more by that event. The firemen and women were touched that someone besides their own families thought of them on that special day. Our kids got to see close up the fascinating world of the fire station – they were guests of honor. From then on, as the fire trucks roared past, all of us had special thoughts about those wonderful people. The same could be done for police stations, hospital emergency centers, etc.
We are also adapting this idea for Thanksgiving. Our family faith celebrates God as the source of all
friends – making new ones and renewing old relationships
It is all too easy in our modern, highly mobile society to make more acquaintences than we can keep up with. Our own personalities and social connections will ultimately determine how many family friends we have, but there are some things that can be done to celebrate and perpetuate friendships near and far. Friends are important, not just for the joy they bring into our daily lives, but also for the continuity they afford as the years run together. Our children need us to work harder at keeping in touch with other families; it teaches them how to maintain relationships and work through problems internal and external to the friendships.
Family cookouts and picnics are invaluable tools for maintaining relationships. On a crowded calendar, these can be difficult to negotiate. How can we maintain relationships and maintain our sanity? Communication is key, keep friends posted on your activities, individual milestones and accomplishments, and other developments as the years pass. Now, let’s be honest, Christmas time is the worst time to catch up with friends. You’ve already got too much to do, too much spend, and too little time for any of it. Christmas cards flood in and half of them are stuffed with poor copies of poorly written “annual family newsletters.” This is not “keeping in touch.”
What’s the solution? First of all, send a family newsletter at a better time. The end of the school year or the end of summer are excellent times to share meaningful family news with folks who have time to read it. And write the way people read. Twenty run-on paragraphs in ten-point type doesn’t get the job done. What do people read? Look at your coffee table – newspapers and magazines are full of pictures, attention grabbing headlines, and all sorts of graphic devices that invite the eye of the reader to invest some time in the effort. With some reasonable effort, any desk-top computer can produce a wonderful family newsletter if you are willing to invest some creativity. Even a one or two page newsletter would benefit from headlines emphasizing sections or themes. Highlight sections for each family member or devise sections like Sports, Living, Opinion, Breaking News. Scan photographs or insert digital pictures to add interest to the publication. The more energy you invest, the more effort others will put into discovering your zany family antics over the last year. And there’s no rule that family newsletters have to be annual. Do a good job and people will look forward to less news more often – and that builds deep, lasting relationships. (Are you thinking to yourself, "who prints and mails newsletters anymore?" Well, true, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are great ways to document the moments of your life. Personally, I find that a whole lot of information constantly delivered is less interesting that snap shots covering a long period of time. If you prefer electrons over print, consider making a family website with pages that summarize summer play, holiday gatherings, etc.)
If face-to-face gathering is your style, work at it to make the event extra-ordinary. Consider a theme picnic / cookout that emphasizes things the families have in common. By adding a point of interest, you provide an anchor to hang memories on. Rather than your children trying to recall a cookout with old neighbors, imagine them remembering the “Spaghetti Western” night or “Thrill of the Grill” that you shared. A certain friend and I demand that we each excel the other in such things as smoking turkey and hams and making apple pies. Our families love it when the oven mit gets tossed down. A lot of advance hype goes into some exquisite dining and memorable gatherings. Of course, if food is not your focus (how could that be?), think about inviting another family to join you on a Christmas tree cutting outing, a visit to the state fair, a night of fireworks, and so on. Just invest a moment or two of planning to make a memory. If you are cutting Christmas trees together, have the kids make an ornament to share between families. Fireworks? Light your path in our out of the event with sparklers and make some red, white, and blue hats for everyone to wear.
Making new friends should never be awkward or difficult. Although some folks are more reserved than others we all share this planet and we all have a story to tell. When I was young and living in Alaska, trips to the southwest to see extended family were full of opportunity to meet new people. When I was six we drove to Texas and, of course, we made many stops along the way. My parents equipped me with a few index cards and a pencil which I would offer to any cowboy-looking fellow as I asked him for the brand of his “outfit.” I got a real kick out of it and now, forty years or so later, I imagine that the city-slickers in boots got quite a kick out of making up brands for that little green horn. Never-mind, it made a memory!
These days it’s hard to get a hold of an authentic cowboy whose got a brand to brag about, but there are many reasons to talk to a stranger. If you meet someone from a different part of the country have the kids ask them what point of interest to take in if your family ever visits their state. That is a guaranteed conversation starter. And vice-versa, if you meet someone whose visiting your neck of the woods, ask if they have taken in your favorites local attractions. Another connection made.
Celebrate the Uniqueness of Each Team Member
Each family member has favorite meals and hopefully those come around often enough that meal-time is happily anticipated. But the family-on-purpose can take it another step. Teach each child at a young age to learn cooking skills, especially when it comes to their favorites – a real learning incentive. Preparing a favorite meal or dish teaches the child competence, confidence, and affirms their role in the family. Encourage the child to substitute or add ingredients to personalize the dish. Either put this meal in the regular “rotation” of meals or save it for occasional, and spectacular, presentation.
(The best thing about this idea, like so many others that are presenting here, is that it makes all family members pay more attention to one another.) With the advent of high tech devices and media-sharing it is increasingly easy to celebrate the musical interests of your family members. Make a note of the artists, albums, songs, etc. that each family member enjoys. Often, just buying a CD will be a special gesture of thoughtfulness. But you could go one more step… Compile a list of a child’s / parent’s / spouse’s favorites and burn them all on one CD. A perfect wedding anniversary gift could be all the special songs that you’ve shared over the years. (I’m thinking of songs like “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” that my wife and I have heard street musicians play from San Francisco to London – what a compilation that would be!) You could gather themes songs from favorite movies, silly songs the kids enjoy, or top hits in the last year to celebrate a birthday. There are as many compilation ideas as there are people. Making special labels completes the gift. Be sure to include the giver and recipient’s name and date to create a memorable keepsake. (Please observe and honor all copyright laws.)
make your mark
We truly live in the information age. There are more pages on the internet than there are humans on the planet. Not too extraordinary at first glance; books have long enjoyed a similar numerical advantage, but now that vast wealth of “information” is literally piped into our homes (for good or bad). Given this deluge of detail, it is not hard to imagine some people feeling lost or thinking that they are relegated to a life of insignificance. This need not be the case.
Think about corporations. When they want to distinguish themselves from others they commission a logo – a personal mark. Today, Texaco, Shell, Apple, MacDonalds, and dozens of other companies
One’s personal mark can be taken another step or two. Black and white business cards are very inexpensive and need not be seen as pure vanity. Personal business cards are a quick and accurate way to share home and cell phone numbers, email addresses and so on. A personal logo would add emphasis and identity to a string of numbers and letters. A set of cards are great for birthdays or a unique back-to-school gift for the “well connected” teenager.
e-make your mark
Speaking of electronic connections, we need to realize that the Internet is the back-bone of cultural communication for decades to come. Do you have your dot.com? I was pleased that I was able to get www.clarkhsmith.com many years ago. As internet addresses get taken, it will be increasingly more difficult to register a new name – my advice, act quick. I have reserved a dot.com domain for each of my children. It is not expensive and since we never know what value it may have in the future, it is better to act now and have your prized sitename socked away. (I use HostMonster.com to register my domains (for only about $10 a year). If you just want an anonymous place in the worldwideweb, there are several places that provide free sites (usually with adds on them).
Now that you have reserved that web site, “fill’er up”! Digital photos, school essays, awards, accomplishments, frivolous thoughts – all is fair in love and web. For example, it is easier on both sender and recipient to create photo albums and send your friends the link (like this) rather than email slow-loading picture files. The website you're on now is a great example of a personal home on the web, imho.
In a section to follow, we’ll talk about creating a legacy. There are some components of the family record that only the family will understand or appreciate, but as much as you can, post it up on the internet to share. Sharing your family’s activity and identity not only entertains others, it reinforces the uniqueness and value of your family.
more ideas underway...
Create remarkable moments amid the routine
learn new skills
communications / writing (writing “real” letters, family newsletter (not just at Christmas))
everyone read a great, classic book (Curious George to Pilgrim’s Progress)
Create a Legacy
photographic record – everyone shoots their impressions and memories
send disposable camera (put your address label on it!) to kids to arrive with first day of camp.
collage / video montage
memorabilia – collecting and displaying