Sometimes it may seem like every member of your family is heading in a different direction: kids have school, sports, and extracurriculars, not to mention it’s increasingly tough to tear them away from their smartphones. And if you’re like 59% of two-parent American families, then both you and your partner have jobs outside the home.
But even if you often find yourselves embarking on separate paths, the most important relationships you can foster are those right at home—they make us who we are, after all. We asked top experts what the happiest families do to successfully come together and grow as a unit. Try bringing these 18 easy-to-adopt habits into your own home.
They create a family mission statement
Organizations and companies create mission statements as a way to articulate goals. Families can do it for the same reasons: to teach kids values and bring the family unit closer. Kids can even contribute to the process, although “the level of involvement would need to be adjusted based on the age,” says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Younger children would likely benefit from being informed about the family’s mission statement then held to it, while older children may be invited to shape it.” In any case, you’re all partners.
They take family history trips
If you can afford to visit the haunts of your forefathers and mothers in Italy or Ireland, then great—but it doesn’t have to be that complicated or expensive. You could even take your kids to the spot where you and your partner met, or the town where you or another relative grew up. “Making that family history come alive builds relationships,” says AARP family expert Amy Goyer. Even better, invite grandma and grandpa along on the trip. They are, after all, the ultimate family historians.
They tell stories
Take a trip without ever leaving the house by sharing stories with your kids from your past, and by inviting your parents and grandparents to join in. “Sharing family stories with grandchildren passes on the family’s culture and traditions and provides a sense of connection across the generations,” says Carroll Tingle, chair of human development and family studies at the University of Alabama. One way to do this is to let the children interview their grandparents. “They might ask what the grandparent remembers about the day the grandchild was born,” Tingle says. “Truth is, most children love best those stories where they are the main character.”
The kids are close with their grandparents
Be sure the two generations have plenty of time to visit or at least talk. Grandparents can be a stabilizing influence: a study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that adolescents who had more grandparent involvementin their lives had fewer emotional problems and were more social than those who had less grandparent involvement. This was especially true in single-parent households and stepfamilies. “Connections between the generationshave long-term benefits for grandparents, parents and children,” confirms Tingle.
They have family meetings
If you’re old enough to remember The Brady Bunch, you’ll also remember the official family meeting. It’s an idea worth borrowing, says Marcia Slattery, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It’s designated time. Everybody has input and looks forward to it. It’s sacred time you keep together.” You can incorporate the family meeting into regularly scheduled programming such as Sunday dinner or make it a separate piece of the weekly schedule. “Agenda” items could include reviewing the past week, the upcoming week’s schedule, new activities or problems at school.
They have family rituals
Establish a routine where all members of the family know that you’re doing something together on certain days of the week—think watching movies together on Friday evenings, going to the farmers market with grandma on Saturday mornings, or making a new type of pizza every Tuesday. Or you could be more creative together, making old-fashioned photo books and adding captions to the pictures. “It’s like an investment,” says Rego. “You create structured time as a family and treat is as a commodity.”
They thank each other often
Encourage your kids and spouse to keep secret journals where they record all the times they find family members doing something good like when a child clears the dinner table without being asked, goes to bed without an argument, or when Dad picks up the dry cleaning for Mom. At the weekly family meeting, everyone can take turns acknowledging someone else. “They consciously and deliberately thank each other for the good things they’ve noticed them doing,” says Rego. It doesn’t have to end here: One study found that kids who wrote gratitude letters were happier. Other studies have shown that being grateful in general can make us not only happier, but healthier too.
They volunteer together
Volunteering is gratitude-in-action, a time to express thanks by doing something positive for the community. Time spent in service teaches kids values and empathy and gives them new places to learn. It could be as simple as donating to a food bank, picking up garbage, or helping out at a homeless shelter. It could even be a way to exercise together: you could train for a Bike MS ride (a nationwide series of bicycle rides that benefits the National Multiple Sclerosis Society), or create a Relay for Life team (overnight walk-runs benefitting the American Cancer Society, and also held nationwide). “There an infinite number of ways we can engage in volunteerism or charity and any one of them help enhance the overall climate of the family,” says Rego.
Each child gets one-on-one time
Time spent together as a group is important, but so is spending time with each of your kids individually. “Every child will be unique and needs to feel that parents are interested in them as much as any sibling,” says Slattery. You can pick specific days of the week to spend dedicated time with each of your children, either at home or away from home. Or you can make sure you spend a portion of each evening (maybe before bed) with each child separately.
They have established sleep routines
Let’s face it: well-rested family members are easier to be around. But science points to other benefits as well. One study found that infants and toddlers who kept to a consistent bedtime routine including a bath, applying lotion, and quiet activities, slept better and woke less often than those who had no routine. And children who go to bed at the same time every night had fewer behavioral problems than those who didn’t have a regular bedtime, research shows. Children and adults who get enough sleep are also less likely to be obese.
They keep an activity calendar
Keep track of gymnastics practice, soccer games, music lessons, and whatever other activities your family is juggling on a whiteboard, wall calendar, or by using an app like Cozi (which is owned by Health‘s parent company). This facilitates communication and keeps everyone organized, says Slattery. This is useful even when your lives are less hectic, like when the kids are out of school and too much unstructured time creates anxiety. When that’s the case, Slattery suggests creating slots for physical exercise, brain exercise (such as reading), social interaction, and playtime each week. “The big areas I emphasize are consistency and routines,” she says. “The predictability and stability of what we do and when goes a long way.”
They write out chores and expectations
Along with a mission statement, everyone should know what chores they’re expected to do. Involve the kids in making the house rules (at least up to a point) by giving them options for their weekly responsibilities: Would they rather feed the dog, clear the table after dinner, or take out the garbage? “Make it specific and concrete and tangible,” says Slattery. Tape the list to the inside of a cupboard door. “That takes away the ‘I didn’t say that’ and ‘What are you talking about?'” she adds.
They laugh together
Tell jokes, watch funny movies, and above all else, learn how to laugh at yourselves. “It’s very important to integrate humor into the home on a regular basis,” says Slattery. Research has shown that laughter can improve mood, boost our immune systems, and improve heart health. Private jokes (as long as they’re not cruel or demeaning) can be another way of fostering connections within the family, adds Rego. Nicknames—maybe a teen child is still “Pooh Bear” because that was their favorite stuffed teddy as a child—can also foster connections.
They eat dinner together
Families that eat dinner together are healthier and happier, and family mealtime teaches kids to love good-for-you foods and to control their portions. “Taking the time to sit down and talk and share food is just one of many ways to catch up with each other,” says Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner project, an organization that encourages family meals and family time.
Take it to another level by wearing your PJs at the dinner table. The wardrobe change helps set mealtime apart from other sitting times that may seem boring to kids, like school, say the Family Dinner Project experts.
They help the kids open up
If your kids tend to clam up during family meals—especially if they’re teetering on the teen years—try “table topics.” These are slips of paper in a bowl at the center of the table that have conversation starters and questions written on them. Fun, even nonsensical topics can be mixed in with nutrition questions so kids learn tips for a lifetime, says Wesley Delbridge, RD, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some suggestions: “If you could be any superhero, which would you be?” and “What is your favorite fruit and vegetable?” Topics can be tailored for any and all age groups.
They communicate consistently
Consistency is a good general rule for any household. This holds especially true for communication. “Open communication clearly has been shown to be helpful for kids to learn self expression and problem solving,” says Slattery. Make an effort to communicate at consistent times such as during family meals and at bedtime. And make sure all family members have an opportunity speak and also practice active listening. “That means respectfully paying attention to what another family member is talking about and asking appropriate follow-up questions or comments to convey you’ve heard what they’ve said and are interested,” says Slattery. “Don’t interrupt and don’t just talk about yourself.”
They unplug once in a while
You don’t want your kids’ (or your) main relationship to be with an iPhone. Turn all screens off when it’s designated time to talk to each other, like the family meeting or dinnertime, suggests Slattery. “This goes for parents too,” says Slattery. “When kids approach parents, they should move away from their computer or phone and be there to respectfully listen.” Among other things, this teaches active listening.
They use technology to their advantage
While you don’t want to be immersed in a screen 24/7, there are times when it can be helpful—for keeping in touch with grandparents, for example. Tingle’s grandchildren live five hours away but she reads to them “virtually” on a regular basis. “While I narrate, they sit looking at the illustrations (from my computer screen to theirs) just as mesmerized as if they were sitting in my lap,” she says. She also sets her laptop on the kitchen counter so they can cook together. “Emails, text messages, and tweets are great ways to share laughs, encouragement, learning experiences and just to let them know you care,” she adds. “I’ve sung lullabies via speaker phone to infant grandchildren who are resisting sleep.”