What makes a family? Each family would most likely answer that differently. For some, it is sharing a deep religious faith and working toward a common goal in that faith; for others, it means having fun and sharing a love of sports or being outdoors. Still others bond not by similarities but by communication. Even though each member of the family may enjoy different activities, the family comes together at certain times, whether it's dinner every night or holidays around the table, and talks about their interests or jobs.
Regardless of what dynamic your family embraces, sharing and communication are crucial to its success. Two other very important words that help describe a family are support and acceptance. Your one-year-old will bond with you and your family because you take care of him, but this will also happen as he experiences the fruit of your family's love for each member. Hearing laughter, seeing warmth and love, being touched consistently and sweetly, being listened and responded to, and being fed are all ways in which we bond as family.
Bringing a baby into the world and choosing to care for him turns one person into a family, but it can also turn a couple into a family or a larger group into a family. A baby begins to learn who his family is and how the individuals in a family should behave long before he is able to speak. He knows his family members' voices and faces, and he responds positively to both.
Touch is a sense that many of us take for granted. We learn how to speak with babies so that their language skills will improve, and we learn how to play games with babies so that their motor skills will develop, but many of us don't realize that a loving touch stimulates growth and serenity in babies.
Many Western mothers have been taught that touching their babies too much will spoil or “baby” them, but in reality, touching creates a strong, intimate, and secure bond between family members. You should feel free to carry your baby, sleep with your baby, and cuddle your baby as much as both of you want.
Baby massage has been shown to reduce stress crying and promote sleep in young children. You can get DVDs and books specifically on the topic, but if your child is crying or having trouble sleeping, try patting or rubbing your baby's back while talking to her. This touch, along with your presence, will help her relax and will bring you closer.
If your baby seems fussy or unhappy in his stroller, consider carrying him for a few minutes (or as long as is comfortable, depending on his size), or sit down and put him on your lap. When you walk with him, hold his hand, and when you talk with him, bend down and look into his eyes.
While it often seems difficult to do at the time, if you and your child are having a difficult moment, try to take a deep breath and touch your child. This is especially true when a child is having a tantrum. In fact, many therapists and parents recommend holding your child from behind, gently, so that he'll relax into your body. To do this, get down to your knees or sit down on the floor so that you are at your child's height and behind him. Without using force, wrap your arms around your child, bringing his arms around his body (almost as if he's giving himself a hug), and hold him in this position. Let him feel you breathe deeply and evenly; this will actually encourage him to breathe slowly and calmly without your even having to tell him to. Your physical closeness, your breathing, and your calmness will encourage your child to calm down, too.
That kind of physical connection will soothe you, too. The power of touch is not limited to babies and young children. It relaxes and calms people of all ages, bonding them to each other.
An afternoon at the zoo, a morning spent running errands, special holiday dinners — these times make a family, when everyone is pitching in with one another. Parents often want to run errands without their children because it's easier to do anything without having to deal with car seats, strollers, and a toddling fifteen-month-old trying to negotiate steps and revolving doors. But every moment you spend with your child, from the most mundane to the most extraordinary, gives her a sense of inclusion in the family.
Finding or creating activities for your family to do together is a wonderful way to bond. Some families share a love of a certain team and sport, while others spend certain days of the week together, such as Saturday, without interruptions or inviting others along for the ride.
If you want to plan special family activities, first take into consideration the youngest child involved. Plan the day around his needs, such as naps, feeding schedules, and diaper-changing stops. Then consider other important needs: time and places to crawl (or toddle around), and the need to make lots of noise. In other words, you shouldn't expect your one-year-old to enjoy the opera or ballet.
“Quality versus quantity” was the debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as women balanced motherhood with their careers. Children and parents need both types of time together in order to feel close. Quantity doesn't have to be twenty hours a day, but it should be four to five hours of nonsleeping time on most days, at the least.
Some exciting family outings that work for children and adults include going to places like these:
• The bookstore (with a café and places for kids to play)
• A science museum with kid-friendly exhibits
• The aquarium
• The zoo
• The park
• Sculpture gardens
• An on-site outdoor museum, such as those featuring old ships or airplanes
• Outdoor music concerts
Finally, be loose about your schedule and the itinerary. It's hard for children — and the other adults, for that matter — if they feel too much time pressure. While adults are often used to sticking to their plans, children are easily sidetracked by the most mundane things, such as the bugs on the sidewalk in front of the museum or the steps going from one part of the park to another.
It's best for everyone if you not only let these moments happen but enjoy them as well. Children are curious about these things for a very short time. In a few years, your child will be running off faster than you want him to (although he may be running around more than you want him to this year, too!).