Help! Our van has become a dining room!

I recently ran into a friend shepherding her teens into her van with a huge family sized cooler in tow. I asked if they were going camping. No, she responded, this was her new kitchen. Between sports, lessons and religion classes, they needed to eat on the move every evening. Sound familiar?

I’m willing to bet that when a free Friday evening or Sunday afternoon rolls around, the last thing on that mom’s mind is creating more family structure.  Yet, family scholar and author Bill Doherty shares that too many families are over-scheduled outside the family and under-scheduled inside the family (The Intentional Family, Quill/HarperCollins, 2002).

When families are so busy “outside” the family, the time kids and parents spend together at home (“inside” the family) is often spent waiting or preparing for the next scheduled “outside” activity.  Unfortunately, this means that kids and parents may be missing out on intentional skill, character and relationship building that could be happening at home.  For instance, scheduled or assigned chores are intentional activities parents should expect teens to complete “inside” the family.  Without these kinds of expectations within the family, children often fail to learn important life skills, leading to dependence on the parent rather than fostering self reliance (see our earlier post on Overindulging Your Teen).

Intentional family time is not just about chores – it’s also about having fun together!  Oftentimes kids (and parents) are so busy with activities outside the family that they are missing out on important home moments like family meals, opportunities for conversational sharing or chances to “play” together. All of these activities are important for building and maintaining connection and intimacy between parents and children.  This is especially important during the stressful and busy teen years.

Some tips for creating more intentional family time during the teen years:

  • Communicate expectations clearly and stick to them.  If Sunday night is family dinner night, make it clear to your teen that their attendance is expected and important. Consider allowing your teen to invite a friend over so that feels less like a chore. And be willing, on rare occasions, to make an exception.
  • Allow for mistakes and imperfections and resist redoing a task done by your teen.  Redoing a chore sends the message that the work is not good enough and that you don’t believe in their ability.  One mom shared her son’s response when she asked him to put the dishes in the dishwasher.  His reply was, “Why should I bother when you go right behind me and rearrange them anyway.”
  • Give choices.  No one likes to be told what to do, especially teens. However, most people respond to having choices because it helps us feel more in control. For example, you might post a list of family chores that need to be done by the end of the week. Everyone in the family needs to pick one. This gives teens a chance to choose something they don’t mind doing and can motivate them to get it done sooner rather than later so that they get their first choice.
  • Be sure to consult your teen and/or respond to their interests as you create opportunities to do fun things together as a family.  Take turns deciding what to do so that everyone gets a chance to select something they really enjoy. Plan family outings like a dinner picnic, a night at the movies or attending a concert with your mutual interests in mind. Remember that negativity is often a normal part of the teen experience; try not to let it prevent you and the family from celebrating shared moments.

Thanks to Lori Zierl, Family Living Educator, UW-Extension Pierce County for her input into this post.  You can view her PowerPoint about Overindulgence at (

To learn more contact your county extension educator, check out  or read How Much is Enough? by Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson & David J. Bredehoft.


Article by Anne

Anne-Headshot-useAnne is an interim Extension Specialist with Cooperative Extension Family Living Programs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  She is also a doctoral student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and has a masters degree in Public Health. She is the oldest of three children.