Recently, the five of us crowded around a newspaper-covered kitchen countertop, donning latex gloves and an x-acto knife, slicing the ends from glow sticks and pouring the liquid into a shot glass. The thin glass tube inside slid out, and we gathered those in another glass, then broke both ends and caught that substance as well. When we had enough of each chemical, we turned out the lights and turned on the video camera, and oohed as the neon light filled the countertop.
This is what we call Forced Family Fun.
I instituted the new Sunday afternoon ritual this fall, but the concept was born years ago, when I’d occasionally force everyone to play a board game, just because I wanted to do something together. I'd long realized that I had to be intentional about spending time together or we’d default to each doing our own thing. At dinner, usually on a Friday night, I’d declare, “We’re playing a game tonight,” and to any who asked to skip out, I’d say, “No, this is forced family fun.”
This fall, I suggested we become both more regular and more egalitarian in our approach. Now we take turns deciding what our FFF activity will be. This way, there’s less complaining if the activity chosen is not appealing to everyone, because their choice is coming in just a few weeks.
As part of the kickoff, one night at dinner, we brainstormed possible ideas. There’s the obvious: board games or watch a movie. There’s the less expected at-home options, like family jam, where we all bring our instruments into the room and play them; sometimes we swap them, which is less sonorous but kind of fun. Then there are the bigger afternoon plans which we’ll do every once in a while: go ice skating in the winter or biking downtown in the summer.
The night we brainstormed, I wrote down every idea that someone shouted out, including, under science experiments, “sodium and water.” Only later did I find out that sodium explodes upon contact with water, so clearly some smart aleck was taking advantage of my ignorance.
We kicked the FFF off with a combo day for my husband and I. My husband always wishes there was more pies in our house, and I love to bake, so I used a Sunday afternoon to teach everyone how to make apple pie. Whether or not anything I taught them will actually stick is debatable, but at least I tried.
My middle son could not wait for his first FFF: scratch off lottery tickets. He is the most optimistic person I know; he wants to enter every sweepstakes he comes across. His pupils turned to dollar signs at the idea of scratching off the foil to win a couple thousand dollars. We each brought $5 to the grocery story and huddled around the lottery machines, each of us considering our strategy—better to buy more of the cheaper tickets or just a couple of the “expensive” ones?—then took the tickets over to the dining area and scratched them off. We extended the fun as long as possible, scratching one ticket at a time, my husband narrating with a play-by-play while we watched and cheered. We took our three winning tickets over and cashed them in and spent it on junk food, discovering the deliciousness of Hershey’s cordial cherry kisses.
Continuing in the theme of winning, my middle's second FFF was a LEGO-building competition. We agreed on two categories: food and alien/monster, divided into two teams, set the timer, and got to work. After we finished, my husband posted photos of the items on his FB (without revealing who made what) and had friends vote on the better team. There was a little sadness for the losing team, but we didn’t let everyone see the exact final voting tallies to keep the hard feelings at bay.
After Christmas, with some new family games in the mix, my youngest forced us all to wear special goggles that turned the world upside down and complete writing and drawing tasks, which was pretty hilarious.
I say “forced” but the truth is that most of the time, the fun is agreeable to everyone.
Most of the time. Our oldest really puts the “forced” in “forced family fun,” preferring to use his picks as a means of torture. He’s helped create an absolutely maddening board game called The Wonderful World of Wooly Wumps. The worst of it is “The Infinite Loop,” where you can literally get stuck for the entire game. At the end of the game, to everyone who loses, you say, “You’ve been wumped!” and this is exactly what it feels like.
My oldest's other favorite FFF activity is Bridge, which most of us enjoy but, as a four-player game, someone always has to rotate out (in addition to someone always sitting out as the dummy hand), and the games are so long we’ve never actually completed one. Sometimes, we have to put a time limit on FFF just so we can get on with our lives.
The chemistry experiment with the glow sticks was one my oldest had been dying to do for a long time. He had a shoebox full of glow sticks, just waiting for the day he’d be allowed to mix the chemicals in our kitchen. And, having completed the experiment, I see why: this was his most fun suggestion yet.
Every once in a while, we’ll give someone a break—they can have the day OFF (Optional
Family Fun), such as when my oldest spent all day Saturday and Sunday competing in mock trial. And sometimes, the schedule doesn’t allow for a full-blown FFF activity, and we’ll skip it or throw out a half-hearted suggestion, like when my husband merely forced us all to eat dinner downstairs and watch the overtime of a playoff game.
Generally, we’re trying to stay true to the plan, giving everyone a chance to decide what the whole family does together. Over time, we’ll probably discover some new activities we enjoy, and along the way we’re making good memories.