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How Families Can Invest in Happiness Vs. Stuff

Experiences matter more than material things. Here's why – and how moms and dads can bank more moments that are rich rewards for you and your kids

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He gives the example of going to a new diner instead of your family's old standby. "Eat at an Ethiopian restaurant where you have to eat with your fingers, or a Japanese restaurant where you're sitting at a table on the floor." That newness of trying out something together helps your family bond and create a shared memory. (You'll find more easy tips in the last section of this article.)

Haltzman does caution parents that as they participate with their kids, they need to still act as parents, not buddies: "As an adult, you walk the line between being the disciplinarian, saying 'This is exactly what the day is going to be like,' and acting like you're just another kid."

The balance is to participate with your kids, allowing for them to enjoy the activity, while still sticking with your families' values and rules.

Tapping kids' interests

Another key to making memorable, meaningful activities is figuring out what fascinates your kids. Is she an engineer wannabe? Maybe you need to plan a trip to Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and scope out some autos. Has he always wanted to play the guitar? Maybe it's time for lessons, either with a teacher – or try learning together from videos online.

Keep in mind simple activities, too. "Play the longest Monopoly game ever. Go build a snowman outside," says Grolnick. "Find something that you as a parent wouldn't normally do."

She notes that her neighbor's kids are currently planning a birthday party for her dog. The idea actually didn't surprise Grolnick when the kids asked her about it: Her own kids, now 18 and 22, planned a similar get-together for a furry friend when they were little. Today, one of her memorable family traditions is playing Dance Party on Xbox with her 18 year-old.

Both Grolnick and Haltzman agree that experiencing the activity is what matters for kids – no lengthy discussion needed either during or after about why doing something together is more important than getting a shiny new iPad Mini. "It's funny, I remember as a kid going to museums with my parents, but I don't remember really appreciating it. I look back now and I'm happy that I did.

"We may not be able to convince our children that (experiences) are valuable and meaningful. That's OK," Haltzman continues. "We shouldn't beat ourselves up about it. It's enough to know that sometime in their lives, they'll look back and appreciate those experiences and recognize that's what they want to do for their kids, too."

Takeaway: Simple ideas

Family activities don't need to be pricey – or even lengthy – to be memorable for your kids.

"There is a cultural bias that says 'the best things in life cost money,'" says Haltzman. "We get that because people aren't advertising free things on the TV. We get a message through the media that we're not going to be happy unless we're spending money on things.

"If we're not happy, then we need to find something else to buy. That's the wrong message. There is a lot of treasure in day-to-day things that don't cost money."

In closing, he offers a few basic ways to start creating those memories:

  • Have a screen-free day. See what kind of creative activities your family comes up with when they go for a day without TV, computers and phones. You might want to do this once a month – or maybe one evening each week.
  • Rediscover the backyard. Touch football, anyone? Take your kids outside on a clear day and just play together in your yard or at a neighborhood park.
  • Go to a new restaurant. Sure, you might already have a favorite haunt, but help your kids discover a new one. Better yet, have a restaurant night at home and let your kids create menus, act as servers and help cook.
  • Learn a new skill together. Try ice fishing or grow an indoor garden. New experiences are more memorable if you are all stepping out of comfort zones together.
  • Check out free, family activities going on in your area. For a handy reference, check out Metro Parent's southeast Michigan calendar of family events, highlighting tons of fun throughout metro Detroit, Ann Arbor and more.

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