JeffWenzlerColor“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Blessed Pope John Paul II

The more I work with youth and their families, the more I hear how crowded our kids’ lives are. Recently, I met an author of a book titled “The Available Parent.” The author, John Duffy, a clinical psychologist, writes about the simple, yet vital importance of being “available” to our kids. Novel idea, huh?

But surprisingly, with the breakdown of the core family unit, broken families, overworked parents, over-programmed youth activities, fewer family mealtimes, more distracting technology, and more focus on competition, there seems to be less “available” time.

Where is dad time with the child? Where is one-on-one mom time? Where is me time? Where is God time? Where has the time gone?

Blessed Mother Teresa said it best: “I think the world today is upside down. Everybody seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater development and greater riches and so on. There is much suffering because there is so very little love in homes and in family life. We have no time for our children, we have no time for each other; there is no time to enjoy each other. In the home begins the disruption of the peace of the world.”

Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa never had children – or at least biological ones – yet they had a keen awareness of how intertwined the larger society and the family unit were. Both understood that the fabric of the global tapestry is woven out of love, respect and time spent within the individual family. Work on your family and you are contributing artists to this fantastic masterpiece.

OK, Jeff, this all sounds well and good, but where do we start?

Let’s start with Shakespeare: “The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven’s lieutenants.”

Our kids need boundaries. Our kids want boundaries. Carve out time for nothing! I don’t mean a Zen moment; rather, just simply enjoy not rushing this way or that. If you are Catholic and reading this, chances are you can appreciate a retreat moment where you weren’t overly focused on the past or the future. You found time with your heavenly parent.

If we teach our kids the value of down time, we allow the Holy Spirit some breathing room. Our kids need someone to model and teach the saying, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today’s a gift, that’s why we call it the present.”

Every time I rush past my kids or choose sports, or news or emails/texts, I am sending a message that I am not available to them. Children are like seismographs charting tremors deep in the earth. Just as Earth sends us signs, so do parents to their kids that they are present or not.

I can imagine that one parent who will read this and will burst into their teen’s bedroom, unplug their iPod and Xbox, get up into their face and say, “Johnny, you know I am here for you, right? Let’s just spend some quiet time together!” Crickets! Awkward!

Teen note: Take a tip from nature. When a hiker encounters an uncertain beast in the wild, many creatures are intimidated or threatened by a violation of personal space and even eye-to-eye contact.

A local Jesuit priest at Marquette University and High School, and dear friend of Jennifer and mine, Jesuit Fr. Frank Majka, shared with me a story from a father. The father had struggled communicating with his son until he took his son to school one day. Something about sitting side by side in the car seemed to open up the lines of communication among these men. Ever since I heard that story I have been aware how men sometimes communicate better sitting side by side at ball games, fishing or in the car. Something to consider. 

Each of you is the captain of your own ship and has to navigate your own journey and manage your shipmates, but maybe these low maintenance ideas will work for you:

  • Instead of saying we are NOT going to do _____ , how about we ARE going to do ______.
  • Game night. Age appropriate, of course. Tweens may not respond well to “Chutes and Ladders.”
  • Take a hike. I don’t mean tell your kid or spouse to “take a hike”! Get out into nature.
  • Go to Mass together. A family that prays together stays together. Let them pick the seat and pick the restaurant after. Pick something they heard or saw during Mass and ask them what they thought about it.
  • Watch a movie together. Tell your child that you want to watch a movie with them sometime in the next week. Ask them to pick something out. It sends a message that you care about what they like. If it’s off-color, maybe it’s a teaching moment. Notice I didn’t say a lecture moment.

Most of all be an “available” parent.

(Jeff and Jennifer are running a zone defense with their three wonderfully active children! Jeff is the founder and executive director of Pivotal Directions, a servant-leadership program for youth. Jennifer works for a health care company that provides Multiple Sclerosis therapies. They are parishioners at Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon.)