Shared family time: often the most beneficial priority
''There just isn't enough time'' is a common complaint in many busy families. Parents juggle work schedules and act as chauffeurs for their children, who may find themselves trundled from soccer practice to a scout meeting, and then back home to polish the ''Moonlight'' sonata for an upcoming recital.
A mother of four says, ''I encourage the children to get themselves where they need to be; otherwise, I'd live in the car.''
To accommodate complex schedules, some parents, usually mothers, have become masters at organization. But some families are so overscheduled they have little time to enjoy each other.
''I think it's the No. 1 problem in the problemless family,'' says Dolores Curran, author of a syndicated family column and a mother of three. In her new book, ''Traits of a Healthy Family'' to be published in May (Minneapolis: Winston Press), Mrs. Curran cites ''sharing time'' as one of the 15 top characteristics of strong families as chosen by 550 family professionals.
According to Mrs. Curran, families who share time together tend to keep their collective leisure time in balance, plan their time together (both short- and long-term), order their activities in terms of importance, control their use of television, and appreciate one-to-one time with other family members.
On the other hand, characteristics of over-committed families include a continual sense of urgency and hurry, a constant feeling of frustration about not getting things done, and a gnawing desire to find a simpler life.
Many families experience these feelings at one time or another, but a relentless, hectic pace calls for a re-evaluation of priorities. It signals a need to seek more satisfaction from within the family rather than from outside activities. ''What it really comes down to is, 'Who is stealing family time?' '' Mrs. Curran says.
Mrs. Curran challenges the assumptions that ''good'' parents sign their children up for everything, and that the more involved a family is in the outside community, the better it is. She believes parents should step back, take a careful look at the activities family members are involved in, and weigh the merits of those pursuits against the loss of shared family time.
Organized children's sports activities, for example, can eat up an inordinate amount of family time. One swimming club for youngsters in Milwaukee, Wis., recently held a meet that began on a Friday night, ran all day Saturday, and all day Sunday.
''It may come as a sobering revelation to thousands of parents that, contrary to the positive family image fostered by these organized youth activities, the family, in fact, suffers from them,'' Mrs. Curran writes.
Some families find great solidarity and purpose in centering activities around favorite sports, but others lose out to them.
According to Mrs. Curran, youth teams and leagues often start out as a loose network with a few games. Then the league picks up momentum and begins to take over on its own steam. More games are scheduled and the season stretches longer and longer. Winning coaches never want to quit, she says, and too often it becomes primarily the adult'sm activity rather than the children's.
When these types of youth organizations overstep their bounds, parents can learn to speak up. One of Mrs. Curran's sons was on a winning soccer team scheduled to play the championship game on Thanksgiving Day. The family had already made plans for the day that they didn't feel could be sacrificed, so the Currans told their son he wouldn't be able to play. Mrs. Curran recalls: ''My son felt very badly and the coach got angry, but when we said 'No,' other parents said 'No.' In the end they had to reschedule the game.''
With the variety of opportunities open to them, children themselves often need to make choices about how they will use their time. A general rule shared by many families is that a child doesn't need more than one activity at a time that requires practice.
Sue Blethen of Bellevue, Wash., says one of her sons ran into conflicts trying to play basketball and take Saturday ski lessons at the same time. Because of the ski lessons, he wasn't able to make it to games scheduled before 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Next year, she says, he has decided to ski and not play basketball.
Social expectations sometimes enter into parents' decisions about what activities their children will or should participate in.
''There is some feeling if a child is not in scouts or little league he is not as good an American,'' Mrs. Curran says. ''There is an overlay of patriotism here - that a child must be successful in these activities to be part of the American dream.'' Yet she is finding more parents, especially younger couples, who are passing up some community-sanctioned youth activities in favor of spending more time with their children.
Some parents might argue that children need exposure to organized activities to ''make it'' in life later on. Mrs. Curran agrees these experiences can be valuable, but says they should be kept in perspective: ''Your child's prior needs are communication and a strong sense of family. We have thousands of people successfully competing in society, searching for what they never had in their own homes.'' Parents are also confronted with a myriad of activities outside the home. Classes, volunteer work, and community clubs vie for attention. But jobs, by far, make the greatest claim on parents' time.
Here, too, priorities can be set. Hard economic times are demanding more of both parents, but some are taking the stand that their families come first.
''It's fine if people have leverage, but a lot don't. That's a problem,'' says Mrs. Curran, who believes businesses could be more sympathetic to family needs. She objects to breakfast meetings, dinner meetings, and those scheduled for Sunday afternoons, when families often try to get together. Some families set aside time when they will allow no work to interfere, even if it's only one night a week.
''We assume that most evenings are family time,'' says Linda Meyer of Cedarburg, Wis. She says her husband, Jim, a marketing executive, is ''exceedingly attentive'' to their two boys, ages seven and 13, and devotes evenings and weekends to being with them.
John Colligan, dean of the School of Advanced Technology at the University of New York in Binghamton, says he gave up ambitions to be president of the college when he thought about what it would mean for his wife and five children. In considering the travel required and the pressures of the job, he decided not to pursue it. ''As things have gone along, I've become more interested in what's happening to us as a family,'' he says.