Twice a week, I volunteer for an hour in my kids’ preschool classes – doing things like preparing snack, reading books, doing puzzles, building towers, and eating lunch at a mini table in a mini chair with very lively mini people. When Sean and I put our kids into a school where volunteering was a requirement, I was admittedly (and now embarrassingly) apprehensive. I viewed the time the kids were in school as my “adult time” to work, do life maintenance, work out, etc and really didn’t want the two worlds to collide. After a few weeks of being in the classroom, however, my mindset shifted. I began to see this time as a gift, not an obligation…as an opportunity to learn, not just box to check…and most importantly, as a way to grow my relationship with my kids in a different way: on their turf.
I included relationships in my wellfesto first, because there is a ton of research correlating strong relationships with good health (check out www.bluezones.com if you’re interested in learning more about this) and second, because I find that my relationships are stronger when I’m intentional about taking care of them. Positive relationships don’t come for free…I’ve learned the hard way that they need to be tended and nurtured (and sometimes that’s not even enough). This is something I’m constantly trying to be better at, particularly because I don’t live physically close to many of the people who are most important in my life. My volunteer hours at the school give me space and structure to develop my relationship practices, teaching me lessons that apply not only to my kids; but to my family, friends, and colleagues too. Here are a few things that have stood out lately:
- Quality matters more than quantity. This is a popular refrain among working parents, but I wholeheartedly believe it (assuming the quantity isn’t teeny tiny), and I think it applies to any sort of relationship. One real, focused conversation with my dad is more meaningful than daily chit-chat…one weekend a year with my best girlfriends keeps us connected in a deep and unique way…and I know that I am able to give more of myself during a few focused hours with my kids than I’d be able to if I had unlimited time.
- Being fully present is non-negotiable. One of the great things about volunteering at a school is that parents aren’t allowed to check their phones, which helps me stay focused on the moment I’m in and the conversations I’m having. Yes, my thoughts still drift from time to time, but freeing myself from technology dramatically improves the quality of the time I spend.
- It helps to spend time on someone else’s turf. My relationship with my kids feels different when I’m on their (school) turf versus our shared (home) turf. I relate slightly differently with my parents at their house versus mine. I feel closer to friends once I’ve had dinner in their homes. Spending time in someone else’s “world” is a great way to deepen and accelerate a relationship.
- Shared experience is irreplaceable. I love it when I hear about games my kids play at school each day, but I it’s even better when I’ve shared in this experience. Sharing experiences creates memories that become part of each of us individually…and as a unit. This principle applies to lots of relationships – running with a friend, cooking with a partner, being part of a book club.
- Diversity adds joy. It’s fun having lunch with a bunch of kids, talking about things like why yogurt comes in different packages and what sand is made of and what animals live in the jungle…instead of how much housing costs in the Bay Area or what company just went public or wrinkles or gun control. Establishing and building diverse relationships (age, background, career, etc) expands who we are while making the world feel a bit smaller and more connected.
Relationships are formed and grown in a huge range of ways in today’s technology-enabled, hyper-connected world, which is totally awesome and sometimes overwhelming. We’re constantly testing the right balance of breadth and depth, quality and quantity, and high-tech versus low-tech interaction. To ensure I’m staying on track and fulfilling my need for connection as well as I can, it’s useful for me to occasionally step back and think about what conditions and actions have led to my strongest past and present relationships, and how I can apply the things that have worked to budding and/or “stuck” relationships.
This post isn’t a call to action to volunteer at your kids’ school or fly to your brother’s house or start a book club…but it is an invitation to take time to reflect on what specific practices help you develop, deepen, nurture and maybe even repair your relationships…and ask yourself how you include them in your life more often.