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Spending More Time these Holidays

23 Nov

In this year of unprecedented financial stress, University of Denver psychologist Martha Wadsworth says our holidays should emphasized what science has repeatedly demonstrated to be most important— quality family time. She is quoted as saying, “Psychological research has shown over and over again that what truly makes people happy is not money, not stuff, it’s time with people you love.” Just yesterday most people engaged in what Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould have called a “collective ritual that celebrates material abundance enacted through feasting”… aka Thanksgiving Day. In an article written in the Journal of Consumer Research, university professors Wallendorf and Arnould minutely dissected and analyzed the American Thanksgiving. They found that with the Thanksgiving meal as the obvious centerpiece, Americans engaged in a predictable range of activities to reinforce family identity. Gallup polls say that more than nine out of 10 Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends, while only four percent dine alone. The most frequent Thanksgiving activities include: • Watching parades on television. We usually encourage the kids to watch parades, to keep them busy while the meal is being prepared. Unless Santa is directly involved, however, their attention spans are usually rather short. This is often an opportunity for family elders to instruct the upcoming generation in the fine art of television parade watching. Grandparents make comments to uncomprehending youngster’s like, “Ooh, look at the big Turkey with a Pilgrim’s hat on.” or “Isn’t that Underdog?” Elders may also provide invaluable tips like, “Always use the bathroom when Al Roker comes on, or when they start performing Broadway show tunes.” • Napping. The heavy meal often takes its toll and leads to reflexive afternoon napping or “slumbery fun” as our son-in-law calls it. Just how napping contributes to family cohesion is unclear to me. Unconsciousness is undoubtedly less risky and often preferable to actually talking to family members. • Taking a walk. After the main meal, many families decide to take walks, as a respite to build up the appetite before dessert time, sort of like the ancient Roman employed vomitoriums. Some people deluded themselves that they will “walk off the meal”. Given the caloric content of the typical American Thanksgiving meal, one would roughly have to walk from Chicago to St. Louis. I have been on these Thanksgiving strolls and with a little luck you might be able to walk off a cranberry or two. • Watching football. This male dominated activity is usually a post-meal activity and often overlaps with the previously described perennial favorite– tryptophan induced napping, especially if it’s a Detroit game. • Viewing family photographs. Many families view old family pictures on Thanksgiving. This builds family solidarity and helps initiate potential family members (boyfriends and girlfriends) to the traditional stories and myths that define the family. I have always hated that picture of me and some other kid wearing nothing but diapers chasing chickens around in some unknown barnyard. It was always good for a laugh, but I remain unamused. With digital photography we take more photos now than ever (including a lot of really bad ones), but since we print fewer copies, this activity now involves looking at pictures on computer screens. Somehow, it’s not the same as thumbing through those old albums with the black corner photo holders, or shoe boxes full of photos. • Storytelling is also a frequent Thanksgiving pastime. These stories usually deal with bad times and unfortunate events that may now be recounted with laughter. Many are about cooking disasters or other displays of foolishness or incompetence. For example, I must have heard the cautionary tale of Uncle Marion cooking spaghetti in the pressure cooker, while drunk, hundreds of timed in my childhood. Granted there is nothing funnier than noodles stuck to ceiling, but give it a rest. Occasionally these stories can ignite old grievances, which lead to the most common of Thanksgiving activities– squabbling. • Playing games. Board and cards games have been very popular in the past but technology has added video games to this mix. If competition gets out of control and alcohol is flowing too freely, this activity intended to bond the family, is ripe for creating dissention. • Watching movies. Finally Many families make a tradition of watching certain Christmas movies such as Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or one of the animated seasonal features. Often snatches of dialogue or memorial quotes are even memorized. But do we really want to spend more time with our families? Comedienne Julia Sweeney suggests that the thought of spending eternity with her family in heaven was one of the factors that drove her to atheism. Jack Shafer from Slate, the online magazine, writes that the claim you want to spend more time with your family is a familiar alibi for people leaving embattled workplaces. His search of the Nexis media database showed that at least twice a day somebody tells the press that they “have swapped the horrors of work for the bliss of family”. Last year Charles Pickering a Mississippi congressman who left Congress, said he did so he could spend more time with his family. When a short time later Pickering announced he was divorcing one sarcastic columnist said that he should have announced he was quitting Congress to spend more time with the other women he had been running around with. Earlier this year a University of Southern California survey found that 28 percent of Americans were concerned that they were now spending less time with their families. The internet may be partially to blame as 44 percent of participants said they were sometimes or often ignored because other family members spend too much time online and even more (48 percent) said they were ignored because others watching too much TV. In some homes this is known as spending too much quality time with your square-headed girlfriend. Individual perceptions may be deceiving , however. A University of Maryland study showed that in 1965 mothers spent only 10.2 hours a week with their children in quality time (feeding, reading, playing). That declined in the ’70s and ’80s, but by 2007 mothers were spending more than 14.1 hours per week, higher than ever. Even then, many mothers still felt guilty and unable to meet unreasonably high cultural expectations. In 2006 reported that a survey of working dads revealed that 40% said they would stay at home and take care of the kids, if their partner earned enough money. Even more (44 %) said they were willing to take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. Respondents expressed concern that they were missing out on major moments in their children’s lives, with 58 % saying they missed at least one significant event. So perhaps people who quit jobs, are occasionally truthful when they say they want to spend more time with their families. Maybe some of us are like Supreme Court Justice Souter, whom David Letterman said retired to spend more time judging his family. Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at or 812-206-1234. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at