Last week I shared how our family does Family Night every Friday evening, and I listed some free and inexpensive ideas for Family Night activities. This week I asked my sister Laurel Vargas to share her family’s tradition.
Though Laurel is 10 years younger than I am, we married within a year of each other and are now raising children of similar ages. Since we grew up and entered the same life stage together, I no longer see her as my little sister. She has become my friend.
Laurel is a woman of great wisdom and grace who has much to teach me. (I may be biased, but I think you will agree.) I admire her immensely and am excited to share this interview with my readers.
Interview with Laurel Vargas
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
My name is Laurel and I have been happily married to my best friend Justin for nearly 7 years. We have 4 children: two lively girls ages 5 and 3, and two sweet boys ages 2 and 1 month.
Loving Jesus and seeing the righteousness, peace and joy of His kingdom advanced in our own lives and the lives, marriages and families around us is our foremost passion. We take great delight in hospitality, travel, good food, world cultures, and creating beauty wherever we go.
My husband and I are both creative, and while we invest much of our artistry into our home, house parties and date nights, we have also built our own businesses to expand some of that talent beyond our immediate community. He does web design outside of his full time office job, and I own and design a jewelry brand for handcrafted botanical leather jewelry, available at laurelicottage.com.
Laurel, you and your husband have developed a unique tradition in your home. Instead of holding a single family night every week, you make 5 evenings special. What exactly do you do?
Justin and I love to celebrate life in every way we can. Before we had children we would even make up holidays just for a reason to do something out of the ordinary.
In the past year our growing family had finally moved into our own home after living for 1-1/2 years with a friend, and Justin had simultaneously begun a new job requiring a lot more of his time than we were used to. In the midst of this transition, it was evident that we needed a daily anchor to help us all enjoy our family autonomy and stay connected in our new season.
Thus began our family nights on all five weekdays, repeated week after week. From Monday through Friday between dinner and bedtime we engage in a different activity to keep our evenings interesting, to spend quality time with each other, and to boost the children’s development. We read books, watch movies, play games, make music, and dance together. Then on Saturday and Sunday we rest or keep open-ended for other activities.
Could you elaborate on each of the 5 activities?
My mother read a lot of books to my siblings and me when we were growing up. Our own bookshelves are now filled with beautiful picture books and inspiring stories. Reading expands the mind through words and worlds commonly neglected in modern American life, but I can easily neglect reading to the children on a daily basis. This evening we select several good books, curl up on the couch, and stretch our imaginations with Dr. Seuss, Jan Brett, Patricia Polacco, and more.
Children love screen time, and we try to limit ours. No cell phones, no iPads, no TV, but a few good movies a week give me some quiet moments to get things done. Tuesday night is a time for us to all kick back and relax while sharing a positive movie. At this age, they enjoy Superbook Bible shows, cartoons of any kind, and astonishingly, Jane Austen movies like Pride and Prejudice and Emma!
During the summer, this gets all of us outside playing tag, hide and go seek, and Simon Says. During the colder months, we play lively games of Red Light Green Light, Checkers, Memory Game, and Charades. While board games stretch the mind and running games exercise the body, it is most important to just play together regardless of following the rules. Our two year old doesn’t usually join in with these games, but he will happily run circles around the room whether we are playing checkers or charades.
I come from a very musical family, but sadly have no musical skills of my own. Justin also comes from a musical family, and is a skillful drummer and plays some guitar and piano as well. Wanting musical talent and appreciation to be part of our children’s lives, we pull out all the instruments each week: the guitars, the drums, the xylophone. We have a Melissa and Doug set of child-sized rattles, tambourines and cymbals that our two- and three-year-old like to play with. Some nights we play with rhythms. Other nights we make up songs on the guitar. Some nights are silly; some nights we just sit and sing, worshiping the Lord. It’s important to us that our children know the joy of entering into a holy atmosphere of worship not just in church services, but in our living room as well.
Friday—Dance Party Night
We don’t get out very much on a Friday night anymore. So to celebrate the end of the week, we gather in the living room, blast some lively tunes—some Spanish music, Messianic praise, some Sam Cooke, some musical show-tunes, some swing—and dance till we are dizzy and out of breath. Neither Justin nor I are good dancers, so this is a chance for us to let loose and have fun without any audience besides our delighted children. We usually wind down the evening with a slow dance or two. It’s a night full of spinning, twirling, hopping, dipping and kicking up our heels. I think our faces hurt from laughing as much as our lungs hurt from being out of breath by the time we call it a night.
What was the inspiration for this idea?
The season of life we are in with very young children and busy work schedules was the primary motivation for adopting these weekly customs.
Quality time and celebrating life in general are priorities for our family, but because my husband and I can easily fill every waking moment with work in an effort to be “productive,” it became evident that our opportunities to enjoy the gift of our family could easily be brushed aside night after night without us being aware of it until the children are grown and our chances are gone. We know how incredibly important it is to make intentional investments into relationships and to cultivate everything that is valuable to us.
We also believe life should be fun if we can help it. With that in mind we made an exciting way for the children to learn and eagerly anticipate all the days of the week, while helping my husband and I to make fun memories with them every single night.
How have your children responded to this routine of nightly family experiences? Of the five activities you described, is there a stand-out favorite?
They embraced it from day one and have continued to eagerly anticipate every night of the week. Our Friday night dance parties have been a consistent favorite for the three children who participate.
What has been the biggest challenge for you in implementing family nights? What have been the biggest benefits?
As the parents, it really pushes us outside of ourselves to dance when we feel exhausted, to sing and shake a tambourine when we are feeling a little grumpy, or to play a lively game when we are thinking about that client we need to take care of.
As always, the challenge of corralling three children with diverse ages and personalities can someday be daunting—when they are fighting over instruments, or when one of them is overwhelmed and crying about the game and you just want them to have fun. The warning that we will pack it up and go to bed immediately usually ends quarrelsome behavior, and extending a comforting hug and the permission to sit out of the game for a few minutes makes for peace.
The benefits have been beautifully evident. It creates stability for our children in our busy lives, and no matter how many toys or games they play with during the day, they look forward to each night of the week. When our full lives could easily become a blur, it helps us make sure we are reading to our children, having fun and making memories with them regularly.
Connecting with the kids every night helps us observe their strengths, their developing personalities, and areas needing extra encouragement. I have seen the greatest outward benefit from the music and dancing. My two-year-old son, who is not yet speaking much, joins in with singing melodies and dances heartily to every tune. My 3-year-old daughter, who can be quite shy and reserved around other people, comes alive when we dance at home, expressing herself freely in this safe and fun atmosphere.
At our house, I know on busy days how easy it is to run out of time for bedtime stories, or when there are major changes, for things to fall through the cracks. You run a small business from home, and you’ve just had a baby. How do you manage to maintain this tradition?
The children won’t let us forget! They do a fine job of keeping us accountable. A few times we tried to put them to bed without our usual activity. “But tonight is dance night!” they would protest. So we would take a deep breath, crank up some tunes and hop around the best we could for a few minutes, and then rush them off to bed. If we have a big event that evening such as a holiday, a late night out at dinner, or a party, that takes the place of our usual activity, but we resume the usual schedule the next night.
Justin and I try to maintain a disciplined schedule even for our own businesses. When possible, I work for an hour or two in the morning with the children around me or take them with me to business appointments, and then work quietly through the children’s long afternoon nap time, leaving my evenings free. My work schedule is on a flexible pause while I adjust to an infant, but life is always a limbo of transition from one thing to the next!
We have a school-aged child, and it can be challenging to fit in anything extra between homework, dinner, and bath, without pushing bedtime back too late. How much time do you allot for these family activities? How might this best be adapted for families with more time constraints?
Time constraints and getting to bed on time are always challenges with a young and busy family. Because our children are not yet school-aged and we are typically home on weeknight evenings, a nightly activity currently works well for us. We typically spend half an hour to an hour with these activities each evening, but on nights that we have deadlines to meet or we are just exhausted, we will pack a lot of fun into 15 minutes.
For families that don’t have this kind of time, fun quality time can easily and intentionally be built into other routines. Play a word game or tell stories at dinner time, sing silly songs during bath time, build confidence and security in your child as you offer challenges and praise while working on homework together. If your children are older and afternoons or evening are spent driving them around to various sports and extracurricular activities, find a game you can play in the car, listen to an audio book, or share fun music.
Memorable quality time can be customized to anything you want, whether it is cooking a meal together, exploring a new world culture or ethnic cuisine once a week, going to the park, hiking, exploring museums or new cities and states as regularly as is feasible.
How difficult is it to get the children to wind down for bedtime after these activities?
Our nightly activities actually help the children exert their after-dinner mental and physical energy making it easier for them to settle down to sleep. Of course they always ask for “one more song” or “one more game,” but we typically start the evening by telling them how many stories/songs/games/etc. we will be doing before it is time to go to bed. Ending the night on a fun note often makes for a happier bedtime, accompanied with the promise of all the playtime they can have tomorrow, and “I’ll see you in the morning when the sun comes up!”
How do you envision this tradition changing in the future, if at all?
We picked themes for the evening activities thinking that these could be fun for a broad range of ages so the children (and my husband and I) could enjoy them for years to come if we continue that long. Our lives must be adaptable, so if an activity is no longer popular with the children or is no longer conducive to our lifestyle, we can simply switch it out with another. Regardless of specific activities, the need for quality time and having fun together will always be crucial to a thriving family through all the changes of life.
What advice do you have for other families wanting to start a similar tradition?
Raising a family is one of the greatest opportunities in life to build relationships and invest in a legacy. What is the pattern that you want your children to see and carry with them? This begins with the way you conduct your marriage relationship, but the way you engage with your children has the second greatest impact.
Think about ways you can make intentional investments into your children’s hearts and build memories they can treasure for a lifetime. It’s important that any quality family time is a performance-free, pressure-free occasion, when the kids can relax, know they are loved, and make “moments in time” with their parents. As parents, our minds can be on overload with all our responsibilities, but try to be mentally present with your family when you are with them. Put down your phone unless you are snapping a quick photo of a priceless moment, but don’t share it until later.
Think about things you enjoy as a family, what values you want to instill in them, and what your weekly schedule is like. For instance, we value the arts and physical fitness, which is why literature, music, dance, and active games have a place in our weekly activities. Laughter and fun should be the goal, with a side of exposure, experience and gentle training that can boost your child’s confidence and competency.
As in all things, aim to live life the way you want it to be remembered.