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How to Help Your Child to Develop the 7 Executive Functioning Skills

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How to Help Your Child to Develop the 7 Executive Functioning Skills

Tommy wants his toy back. His brother is playing with his favorite toy and he wants it back. Tommy starts to scream and is hitting his brother uncontrollably. He is three and these fits of rage and lack of self-control rear their ugly head daily. Their parents rush into the room and diffuse the situation. They are at a loss as to why Tommy has little to no self-control.

Is it just the terrible twos that are stretching beyond the twos? Or is there something else that can better explain his behavior?

Actually, Tommy, like many little tots, is still developing his executive functioning skills. These skills are imperative in helping us regulate our behaviors and exhibit self-control. Parents need to understand the role of executive functioning skills and how they can help their child develop these skills.

I will provide an explanation of these skills and tips in this article to help parents with this understanding.

What Are Executive Functioning Skills?

Executive function is processes in the brain that help us function. Executive function helps with the execution of the variety of skills. These are a top 10 list of the skills associated with executive functioning:

  • Paying attention
  • Completion of a task from start to finish
  • Self-motivation
  • Self control, impulse control, and inhibition (the ability to control one’s actions and behaviors)
  • Organize and make decisions
  • Manage time properly for completion of tasks
  • Mental flexibility (being able to change directions with a task when needed)
  • Accurate self-assessment (able to look at one’s abilities and achievements objectively)
  • Memory and recall (ability to keep information and retrieve it when needed)
  • Task initiation (ability to dive into a project and get started)

People with low executive functioning skills have a harder time socializing, getting tasks completed, and controlling their basic impulses. There are a variety of problems and even diagnosable disorders associated with executive dysfunction.

For example, when a first grader with poor executive functioning skills wants the pink ball at recess, and another littler girl has the only pink ball, the little girl who wants the ball may hit the other child because her impulse is to do whatever it takes to get that ball.

She has not developed the skills to process the situation logically nor the ability to develop a plan to ask politely to share the ball. Her executive functioning skills are not developed enough so she reacts without thinking about the consequences. Her impulses take over.

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University explains the role of executive function as follows:[1]

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

We are not born with executive functioning skills. These skills are something we develop.

Good parenting methods can help with the development of these skills. They are important because the benefits of learning these skills can last for a lifetime. These skills are those we begin building early in life and we can continue building upon in childhood and into adulthood.

This building upon skills is called scaffolding. It is never too late to develop executive functioning skills, but the earlier they can begin developing the better off a person will be in handling life, as the skills build upon themselves.

The Importance of Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning skills affect us in every area of life. Here are some examples.

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Health

If a teenager doesn’t have good impulse control skills, then that individual may be more likely to succumb to peer pressure. Their lack of self control can affect their decision making and lead to drug addiction, alcohol abuse, or addiction to pornography.

The executive functioning skill of self-control has an effect on our food choices. If we lack self control with food, we are more likely to make poor food choices, based on impulses. Junk food can easily become the go-to food for an individual who lacks self-control with food.

Academic Success

Memory is one of the primary areas of executive functioning. If an individual has not developed good memory and recall skills, they will likely do poor in school.

Studying for exams, learning how to memorize and recall information are imperative to success in school. Planning skills and task management skills (i.e. completion of assignments) is also imperative to academic success.

Career Success

If someone has poor executive functioning skills in the area of planning and task execution, then career success will be limited.

When assigned a work project, the individual with poor planning skills may wait until the last minute to prepare their presentation. Their poor time management and planning skills can lead to workplace failures.

Social Relationships

When a child doesn’t have good executive functioning skills which includes self-control, they may fail to see the feelings of others in the moment.

When they lose at a game, they may sulk or cry. They may also yell at their playmates when they don’t get their way. Worse yet, they can act out violently, such as hitting and biting when someone has a toy that they want. Their ability to control their impulses is poor when they have not developed good executive functioning skills.

Romantic Relationships

The man who doesn’t know how to take no for an answer when it comes to physical romantic interactions may be someone who lacks impulse control. He may know right from wrong, but he has not learned how to control his impulses. This can obviously lead to major problems in any romantic relationship.

If you don’t want a son who rapes girls (or vice versa, because that happens too), then you need to instill more than a sense of right and wrong. They must also be taught self-control and to navigate their impulses to make good decisions in heated situations.

Ways to Help Your Child Develop Executive Functioning Skills

A great deal of executive functioning skill development occurs during childhood. How a child is raised will have a big impact on whether or not they have developed good executive functioning skills by adulthood.

1. Routines

Daily routines can help establish order and predictability. Children (and adults) benefit from routines that establish good daily habits. For example, in the morning some good habits to establish and expect from children are getting dressed, brushing their teeth, putting on their shoes, combing their hair and preparing their backpack.

Making their bed, picking up their room, and other chores are also good daily tasks to add to the routine if your child isn’t doing them already. If you wonder what kind of chores are age appropriate for your child, you can check out this posting from Focus on the Family. They have provided examples of age appropriate charts along with a free printable chore chart.

If your child has difficulty getting things done in the morning, then create a chart for them to check off their tasks as they complete them each morning. You can find charts online for purchase, such as major creative websites like Etsy. They have magnet boards that can be customized for tasks you want your child to do each morning. Amazon has a variety of these premade boards for sale.

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Just use the search terms “daily routine charts” or “morning routine charts” and you will find lots of options. If you are crafty you can easily make one yourself. Below is chart of one such product found on Amazon using the search terms I mentioned above.

    2. After School Homework Time

    Most kids do not come home from school and decide to get started on their homework. It would be great if they did! If your child does this, then you need to realize you have a unicorn. Most children need reminding about homework, especially in the early days when they first start receiving homework.

    It is helpful to set aside a specific time period after school when homework is to be completed. For example, you can set a rule that they must do it immediately after school, and they cannot use electronics or play until it is finished.

    Getting your child in the habit of doing their homework sooner than later helps with planning skills. Having a teenager who waits until 11pm on a Sunday night to start a book report that they have known about for a week is a bad habit.

    Don’t let your child become an out of control procrastinator. Start teaching them time management and planning skills early in life. You will reap the benefits too.

    Start helping them plan on getting homework done before they can play is a good policy. It also helps with developing self control, as they must get the work done before they can do something enjoyable. They learn to appreciate their electronics and free time more when they have accomplished a task (i.e. homework) to earn the right to play.

    3. Calendar/Agenda

    Get your child in the habit of using a calendar or agenda book at an early age. When I was in 6th grade, our school issued an agenda book to each student. I have since been using the organizational habits I learned from that time in my life. I will still record writing deadlines among other appointments in my book.

    Have your child record their assignments in their own agenda book. Putting major assignments on a calendar is also helpful.

    Using a calendar or agenda book can help with establishing planning skills. If they look at their calendar in the morning and see that they have their term project due and basketball practice after school, they can go out the door with the completed project in hand along with clothes for practice. Helping your child prepare for their day, week, and month becomes easier when it is visible on a calendar.

    Do digital calendars work? Yes, but not as well as paper calendars. There is always a risk of losing things that are digital or having a dead phone. Having it on paper can also allow for a quick “month at a glace” viewing (if they have calendar that shows month to month like I do). Such a glace can provide quick reminders of what needs to get done in the near future or appointments that need preparation.

    4. Set Rules

    Rules are the backbone of the household function. If kids don’t know what time they are supposed to be home, what chores are expected, and when they should be going to bed, then they are not learning planning skills in the home.

    Kids need clearly defined rules. It doesn’t mean that they have to be strict or over the top rules. However, they need to be clearly conveyed to each member of the household. Putting them in writing will definitely make it clear.

    Setting clear rules such as no shoes in the house, no yelling indoors, no eating in the living room, etc. can help kids understand the parameters for their behavior inside the home. This helps them to develop self-control as they learn what is expected.

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    Broken rules should result in consequences (for example in our home it is usually loss of technology time or a time-out). Setting rules is setting expectations. This helps with children and their development of a variety of executive functioning skills including planning, organization, time management, paying attention, and self control.

    5. Consequences

    Consequences definitely help with the development of self-control. If your toddler learns that temper tantrums always lead to time outs, then they eventually stop with the tantrums because they realize they aren’t worth it.

    Consequences should be reasonable and age appropriate. For more details on this topic, you can check out my previously published article: How to Discipline a Child.

    6. Break Down Big Tasks

    Kids that have a hard time getting started on large projects or tasks simply feel overwhelmed and they freeze up. Help your child out by breaking down a larger task.

    For example, if they have a book report due next month then help them examine the steps involved. First would be writing the book, next writing the report, and finally turning in the report before the deadline. You can help them set the dates to get each of the tasks completed in a timely fashion. You can even go as far as helping them assign themselves specific chapters to read by certain dates. It helps them to see their big task as a series of small tasks that they can complete more easily and build upon.

    Breaking down big tasks can help with a child who has problems getting started on projects. It can also help them develop their planning, organization, and follow-through skills. These are all executive functioning skills that are wonderful to develop earlier in life than later.

    7. Memory Games and Play

    Playing games and allowing your child to play can help with the development of executive functioning skills. Memory is one of the top ten executive functioning skills.

    To help a child develop their memory, you can play matching games, such as the one actually called Memory. You can also play sorting games, hide and seek, and matching games. These types of activities can help with memory, recall, and the development of other executive function skills too (i.e. planning, organization, motivation).

    Teaching your child to sing songs from memory and play an instrument are also very helpful in developing executive functioning skills. Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child provides a resource list of fun activities you can do with your child to help them develop their executive functioning skills.[2]

    8. Motivate

    Internal motivation

    does not come automatically for all kids. Sometimes children need to have external motivation to get them down the path toward success. Once they feel success and enjoy their pursuits, they will learn to self motivate.

    To get them started you may need to help motivate them. Offering genuine praise for their success is one way to motivate. If you are motivating them away from bad decisions, you may need to use consequences or discipline. However, praise and rewards are always more motivating in the long run.

    9. Home Organization

    It is hard for a child to learn how to be organized, not lose their personal items, and keep on schedule if their home life is chaos. A home that is clutter filled, unkept, and where things are easily lost does not lend itself to helping a child develop good executive functioning skills.

    Some home organization methods that can help your child include having a specific place for backpacks, coats, and shoes to be placed when not being used. This will help with their routine, planning, and time management skills.

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    Having them participate in keeping a home in order helps with their development of executive functioning skills, as they are learning about organization, planning, task initiation, and task completion. Overall, the best benefits of an organized home are their development of time management skills and routine.

    10. Self Control Techniques

    Self control is an executive functioning skills that is imperative to life success. If you have a child who is still throwing temper tantrums in public at age 10 because they can’t control themselves, then you definitely have a problem.

    There should be consequences for lack of self control that is disruptive or damaging. For example, a child’s tantrums can result in loss of play time, or a child who steals a classmate’s lip gloss simply because they wanted it (lack of impulse control) will need to return it, apologize to the classmate, and will be grounded for a week. Whatever the situation may be, there should be an adequate consequence to match the failure to control their behaviors.

    Once children learn that their behaviors have consequences, they learn to control their behaviors better. A child who wants to go to the movies after church, but knows that they must be quiet during church for them to be allowed to go out with their friends, will likely be quiet during church so that they can get the desired result (movie with friends after church). Providing consequences in advance (or the potential for rewards like the example above) can help to promote self control in your child.

    Help to motivate your child by providing both rewards and consequences as fitting for the situation. Again, remember that rewards are always more effective for long term positive results and can help to create genuine motivation toward good behavior.

    11. Be the Example

    To teach your child skills that embody good executive skill functioning, you must be the example. For example, if you want your child to follow rules, then you should also follow the rules set forth for you (i.e. the laws). If you are a habitual speeder and you say things like “those speed limits are only suggestions,” you are essentially telling your child that rules and laws don’t matter. If you want children who follow rules, order, and the laws of society, then you must be a good example.

    If you want your child to not be late for school, then you should set the example for morning routines and leaving early to get to your destination. Your habits such as organizational skills, time management, following rules, planning skills, and completing tasks are being observed by your children on a daily basis. They learn just as much, if not more, through your actions than your words. “Actions speak louder than words” is a motto to live by.

    12. Teach Self-Evaluation Through Questions

    The ability to assess one’s own abilities and achievements (or lack thereof) is an executive functioning skill. If someone is weak at this skill, then they will be shocked when they fail at something.

    Help your child prepare for success and failure. If they fail at something, then ask them “what do you think you could do different next time?” If they can recognize areas that need to be improved, then their perception of the situation and the reality can become more closely aligned.

    If you tell your child “you deserved to win” every time that they lose, they are going to start believing you and they will see no wrong in themselves. You teach them to evaluate themselves by asking them questions.

    Below are some additional questions you can use with your children. Be sure to use a kind and inviting tone. If you sound sarcastic or harsh, your child is going to shut down to your questioning and it will not be productive. If you want a meaningful conversations, then use a tone that shows you care for them and are genuinely interested in their situation:

    • How do you think it went?
    • What could you do differently next time?
    • What is one thing that you could improve on before next time (next game, meet, test, etc.)?
    • What did you learn from your disappointment today (or loss or whatever happened)?
    • How are you feeling about your disappointment?
    • What did you learn from this experience?
    • What is something positive you can take away from the experience?
    • What do you think it will take for you to win next time (or pass the test or whatever the situation may be)?
    • What kind of plan do you need in place to take you to that next win?

    Final Thoughts

    Executive functioning skills are essential to human function. The weaker the executive functioning skills, the less successful a person is likely to become in life in all areas (except maybe sleep). Although routine and time management help with sleep too!

    Executive functioning skills are learned primarily in the home though a primary caregiver (usually the parent). How a child is raised (and treated), their home environment, and the behaviors (and example) of their primary caregiver play a huge role in developing executive functioning skills.

    Even if a child doesn’t develop them early in life, all hope is not lost. These skills can still be developed in late childhood and even into adulthood. Just do the best that you can do as a parent for your child now.

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    More Parenting Skills

    Featured photo credit: Paige Cody via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University: Executive Function & Self-Regulation
    [2] Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child: Executive Function Activities for 3- to 5-year-olds

    More by this author

    Dr. Magdalena Battles

    A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault

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    Last Updated on October 7, 2021

    Why Spending Time With Your Family Is Important (And How To Do So)

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    Why Spending Time With Your Family Is Important (And How To Do So)

    In today’s chaotic world, having family time isn’t always easy. It can get pretty hard to coordinate schedules, especially if the family is large. Life demands that we work, attend school, nurture friendships, hobbies, etc. All of those things are extremely time-consuming and important—but so is spending time with your family.

    Why is family time so important? Because we all need love and support, and a good, strong family can provide that regularly. For children, spending time with their family helps shape them into good, responsible adults, improve their mental health, and develop strong core values.

    There are many positive effects of spending time with your family. My family and I, for instance (and this includes grandchildren as well), meet every Tuesday night for dinner and games. My older son and I take turns cooking. This gives all of us a chance to try some new recipes. After dinner, we play games. And without fail, they inspire competitiveness and laughter. As family night has evolved, the grandkids have invited their friends over as well, creating the need for more chairs but also expanding our circle of fun.

    Aside from the obvious fun and games, there are other reasons why spending time with your family is paramount. In this article, I will provide you with multiple reasons why spending time with your family regularly is a win-win. And then, I will lay out some ways on how to do it.

    Let’s get started, shall we?

    Why Spending Time With Your Family Is Important

    Here are six reasons why it’s important to spend time with your family.

    1. Provides the Opportunity to Bond

    When you spend time together as a family—talking about your day, your highs, your lows—it fosters communication. As parents, it gives you the chance to listen to your children, to hear them out, to learn about what’s going on in their world. It also provides you with the opportunity to use life situations as teaching moments.

    Before our Tuesday night dinner/game nights, my family used to see each other pretty regularly but not consistently, especially the grandkids. Our family night changed all that. Now, it’s guaranteed that the grandchildren, along with some of their friends, will be there. Not only do I get to find out what’s been happening in their lives, but they also get to know us better. It’s creating memories they can treasure forever, as well as modeling the Get-Together tradition for when they eventually have families of their own.

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    “Spending time partaking in everyday family leisure activities has been associated with greater emotional bonding within families.”[1]

    2. Teaches the Value of Family

    Taking the time to be with your family lets your children know they are valued—that spending time together is a priority. I know that in today’s world, both parents are busy as both usually working. What better way to let your children know they are loved than by carving out time each week to spend with them?

    According to Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., “words like honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage are core to centuries of religious, philosophical, and family beliefs. Use them and others to express and reinforce your family values. Teach children the behaviors that flow from these principles. Use quotes to ignite meaningful dinner conversations and encourage kids to talk about these values.”[2]

    3. Enhances Mental Well-Being

    Spending that quality time together gives your children a safe platform in which to express themselves, ask questions about things that are bothering them, or talk about their day and things they’ve learned. I know that my 9-year old granddaughter can’t wait until it’s her turn to talk about her day. She usually goes on and on and has to be stopped to give everyone else a chance to talk about their goings-on.

    “Research shows the quality of family relationships is more important than their size or composition. Whoever the family is made up of, they can build strong, positive relationships that promote wellbeing and support children and young people’s mental health.”[3]

    For children, having the opportunity to seek advice from parents they trust—as well as being able to have a sounding board and help with problem-solving—is priceless. In addition, being able to voice their opinions and be heard—and to feel like what they have to say matters—is an esteem-builder. All of these can have a very impactful positive effect on their well-being.

    4. Helps the Child Feel Loved

    How do you think a child feels knowing their parents want to spend time with them—talking, sharing experiences, playing games, listening to them? It will make them feel as though they are important, and a child that feels important is happier and more apt to thrive. Setting aside chores or work to spend time with your children demonstrates that they’re essential—that they matter. What a gift to give your child!

    “If a child has your undivided attention, it signals that they are loved and important to you. This can be further nurtured by experiencing joyful activities together, as it demonstrates that you want to spend time with your children over and above all of the daily demands.”[4]

    5. Creates a Safe Environment

    If you regularly spend time with your children, you are also creating an atmosphere of trust. The more trust they have, the more likely they are to share with you what’s going on in their world. As they get older, you’re going to want to know. Negative influences can show up at any time, but if you’ve always been there for your child, they are more apt to come to you and ask for your advice.

    Spending time together generates familiarity and feelings of being supported. When a child feels safe and comfortable, they’re more likely to open up. This is one way to get to know your child and know what’s on their minds. Are they okay? Do they need your guidance? If so, how?

    6. Reduces Stress

    This is significant. We all suffer from stress at one point or another in our lives. Spending time with family helps alleviate that stress. It’s an opportunity to talk things out, get feedback, and maybe brainstorm for a solution to the problem that is causing the stress.

    According to Brandy Drzymkowski, “During the holidays, your closest five people probably shifts to family and friends. You may even get to see loved ones who live far away. Good news! This can actually help lower your stress levels. Studies show ‘face-to-face interaction…counteracts the body’s defensive ‘fight-or-flight’ response.’ In other words, quality time spent with loved ones is nature’s stress reliever.”[5]

    So, now that you know some of the benefits, what are some ideas for making family time happen?

    How to Make Family Time Happen

    Here are four things you can do to make family time happen and spend more time with them.

    1. Family Dinners

    This, as I said above, is a wonderful way to spend time together. While you’re having dinner, you have the chance to discuss things that are going on in your lives—the ups, the downs, and everywhere in between. It’s like having a buffer against life’s challenges.

    Aside from that, eating dinner together has many additional benefits. Studies have shown that for kids who eat regularly with their families, there is less risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression.[6]

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    “Our belief in the ‘magic’ of family dinners is grounded in research on the physical, mental and emotional benefits of regular family meals.” It further states, “We recommend combining food, fun and conversation at mealtimes because those three ingredients are the recipe for a warm, positive family dinner—the type of environment that makes these scientifically proven benefits possible.”[7]

    According to Parenting NI, “children and adolescents who spend more time with their parents are less likely to get involved in risky behavior. According to studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse via Arizona State University, teens who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to use tobacco, nearly twice as likely to use alcohol and one and a half times more likely to use marijuana.”[8]

    As you can see, there are multiple benefits to spending time with each other routinely. You can’t go wrong with this family activity.

    2.  Regular Movie Nights

    This is another fun event, although, from personal experience, I have to caution that choosing a movie that everyone wants to see is not easy. So, give yourselves plenty of time so you don’t spend two hours searching for a movie, and then end up watching no movie at all because the night is practically over. Try and choose a movie before the day, if possible.

    Afterward, open it up for discussion. Ask questions pertinent to the movie. What do you think of ABC? Should they have done that? Would you have done something differently? There are so many questions you can ask to spark a conversation and keep the night going.

    3. Game Night

    This is another occasion for great fun. If you have a competitive spirit, it makes it even more fun. There are numerous games out there—Balderdash, Pictionary, Apples to Apples, Charades, to name a few—that can create fun havoc. All I can say is, on game nights, don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s okay if you lose the game. The fun is in being together, laughing, debating, and having a good time.

    In addition, “Playing board games is great for children for many reasons besides the obvious; it’s fun to play games! Age appropriate games can help children to think strategically, solve problems creatively, work on pattern recognition and build simple math skills. They also help children develop social skills such as following rules, taking turns, and graceful winning or losing. Additionally, a family game night provides an opportunity for children to bond with siblings, parents and family members as well as peers. It can promote tradition building and establish a fun routine.”[9]

    So, go find your family a game and start having fun!

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    4. Sharing a Hobby

    If you and one of your kids like to do the same things, do it more often. For example, my oldest son and his teenage son go on long bike rides together on the weekends. Not only do they get to exercise, but they also get to talk and look at beautiful sceneries. They’ve also incorporated cooking into their routine. They plan the meal, shop, and prepare—activities that bring them closer together.

    Sharing a hobby is a great way to bring family members together. It bonds people in amazing ways. According to Alison Ratner Mayer, LICSW, “One of the easiest and most important ways to build a child’s self-esteem is to spend time with them doing something not only that they enjoy but something that you also enjoy. There is a special magic that happens between a parent and a child when they share a mutually beloved activity. It sends the message to the child that their parents are having fun, true, honest, real fun, with them.”[10]

    Final Thoughts

    Spending time with the family is an investment. It is an investment in the happiness, well-being, and security of that system. It can also serve as a way to break out of the daily rut and the constant worldly demands, while at the same time, building a strong family unit.

    Even though it isn’t always easy to find the time, finding the time is key to staying close and to providing and receiving love and support. There is no greater gift than the gift of time. That’s what we all seem to be missing nowadays. So, in giving that gift consistently, everyone feels loved and appreciated.

    The family that takes the time to interact regularly is typically happy. They know they are part of a tribe, and that’s essential in today’s chaotic world. To know that there are people whom you can count on—people who will have your back in times of need—is invaluable.

    Now, go and plan something plan with your family, if you haven’t already.

    Featured photo credit: Jimmy Dean via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Pittsburgh Parent: Spending Time Together—Benefits of Family Time
    [2] Roots of Action: Integrity: How Families Teach and Live Their Values
    [3] Beyond Blue: Healthy Families
    [4] Esperance Anglican Community School: The importance of family time
    [5] Brandy Drzymkowski: Spending Time With Loved Ones Reduces Stress
    [6] Harvard Graduate School of Education: Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime
    [7] The Family Dinner Project: BENEFITS OF FAMILY DINNERS
    [8] Parenting NI: The Importance of Spending Time Together
    [9] WNY Children: Family Game Night- The Benefits of Game Play
    [10] Child Therapy Boston: The Benefits of Sharing a Hobby With Your Child

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