From work to school to sporting events to birthday parties, every family has a busy schedule. Both weekdays and weekends are filled to capacity with activities and errands—many of which send family members in opposite directions—leaving little “downtime” for family togetherness. But finding family time may be easier than parents think. 

Just say “no”

“The first step in creating family time,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a PhD of Princeton, psychologist, mother of four, and author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention Without Hitting Your Sister (Parenting Press Inc.), “is realizing that you do not need to say ‘yes’ to every invitation you or your child receives. Think carefully before deciding whether or not to take on an activity,” Kennedy-Moore counsels. “If it will make you feel stressed and overwhelmed, then probably the answer should be no, even if it would also be fun or interesting.”

Keep it simple

The second step is realizing that family fun doesn’t have to be stressful. Rather than worrying about carving out an entire free day to spend together or coming up with an elaborate plan of things to do, experts suggest that parents look for simple ways their family can connect on a regular basis. “Sometimes parents put too much emphasis on planning big family events or vacations,” says Kennedy-Moore. “While vacations are great, one or two weeks spent together are not going to make up for a lot of emotional distance between family members.” There are many small opportunities for families to connect in little ways every day. Kennedy-Moore says, “If your child has an afterschool snack, make yourself a cup of tea and listen to your child’s account of the day.” If your schedule doesn’t allow for time to sit and talk, use drive time as a way to bond. 

Kennedy-Moore suggests singing songs in the car while driving to activities or stopping for ice cream together on the way home from errands. “Often these little connections are more manageable for busy families than big events,” she explains, “and they may be more important for a sense of connection than grand gestures.”

Develop rituals

Family rituals can be as simple as having Chinese food on Wednesdays or movie night on Fridays. Remember that the objective is spending time together; don’t let the ritual itself become stressful. Some weeks there may be time for a Monopoly marathon, while others allow for only a quick game of cards. That’s okay. Just make sure you let the children take turns choosing the movie or picking the game so everyone feels included. “Even 30-minute rituals can have a lot of meaning and stay in a child’s memories for a lifetime,” says Rory Cohen of Loveladies, NJ, author and president of implmentation-coaching website Take 10

Make family time sacred

“Prioritize your family time,” Cohen suggests. “Once you’ve set up things to do as a family, make the scheduled time sacred.” Whether you plan to have a family dinner or a week away, stick to the plan the way you would any other commitment. Make sure you are present, both physically and mentally. That means children and parents need to turn off their cell phones and set aside their mental to-do lists.  

Invite friends to join the fun

Older children may resist family time, preferring to spend time with their peers instead. Consider allowing them to invite a friend along on your family outing. Or ask another family to join yours. But don’t wait until the house is sparkling clean or the menu is just right. “A lot of families never have anyone over because they think the house has to be perfect and the meal impressive,” says Kennedy-Moore, “but a simple barbecue in the yard is a great way for families to spend time together.” 

Make room for unexpected fun

Some of the best family time can come from embracing an unplanned opportunity. Last summer, after dinner, my three kids started kicking the soccer ball around the yard.  Rather than clearing the table and loading the dishwasher, my husband, my mother-in-law (who had double knee replacement the year before), and I decided to join them in a spontaneous “kids vs. adults” soccer game. We did a lot of fun things together that summer, but the hilarity of that surprising game turned into a wonderful memory for all of us.

Randi Mazzella, a mother of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills.