A framed poster with the words “Work Hard, Be Nice to People” in bold letters caught my eye recently. I thought it would be an excellent addition to our mudroom wall. Every family has its rules, whether hanging on a wall or written in the sky. I liked the clear and present message of these.
Over the last few weeks, my kids and I have been cuddling up each night to watch an episode or two of The Wonder Years. I’ve been reflecting on how much —and how little— family rules have changed over the decades. The show begins in the late sixties and is narrated by the grown-up voice of Kevin Arnold, the youngest of three children living on a suburban street in Anywhere, USA. Through Kevin's lens, we witness a mom holding the family together like glue through consistency, kindness, and family suppers. Mr. Arnold, the dad, is usually griping about money, something about dinner or the children in general. Wayne is the quintessential annoying older brother whose goal in life seems to be torturing Kevin. Big sister Karen, the flowerchild of the family, is caught up in dating, freedom of everything and teenage hormones. Life is good. Basically, they work hard and, harmless haranguing aside, they’re generally nice to people.
I was born in the late seventies and attended grade school in the 80’s, adorned with charm necklaces, captivated by John Hughes’ movies and actually talked to friends for hours on telephones connected to the wall. I was the youngest of three by a decade. Much like Kevin Arnold, I was tortured or ignored by my older siblings. Every night my mom would try and hold our family together like glue with a family dinner. Sadly, this was my least favorite time of the day as the conversation was never designed with an eight-year-old in mind. We mostly talked about my dad’s work, and aside from that, I can’t remember anything interesting ever being discussed. Dinnertime was at its best boring, at its worst endless. My brother would tease me; once when I told my mom that her food was disgusting, I was sent to my room and spanked. In retrospect, I had a very nice childhood; I learned to work hard and be nice. I just didn’t like dinnertime.
Fast forward to today: I too want to teach my kids to work hard and be nice. The dinner table is a perfect classroom for this. Before the pandemic, G commuted over an hour to and from work. By the time he got home, our young kids were usually fed, bathed and on their way to bed. The shift to “work from home” has gifted our family with beautiful, endless time together. Most days, we all like each other, so we embrace our newfound togetherness. Whether we’re baking chicken nuggets again or making our own pizza from scratch, when we sit at the table, everyone gets a say. Discussion meanders, we feed off each other’s ideas, everyone has a voice.
Looking back on my both my childhood and fictional Kevin Arnold’s, I realize how much more involved kids are in family life today. In the 60s, as well as the 80s, the “things that happened” in kids’ lives were mainly outside the house, with friends or at school. Today, and even more so during semi-isolation, kids are often equal contributors to the fabric of families.
Ironically, even though we’re spending so much time together, my kids (and probably yours) have a lot of alone time and free time in their days. This had led me to create another family rule: Boredom is not an option. My goal is to teach my kids to turn downtime into me-time. I want them to learn that ideas and innovation come from having the time and space to do nothing but dream. I want them to have the desire as well as the”permission” to turn boredom into brainstorming.
For nearly eight years, I spent hours in the dark, either nursing or getting one kid or the other back to sleep and then being afraid to move and wake them again. Most moms (and many dads too) know how boring those times can be. Eventually I came to view my dark hours as a nightly gift. It was my chance to let problems turn themselves into solutions, to meditate, or just give my hyper mind a needed rest. SPLATZ became a reality because of that time. Hip Hip Rosé, a book I wrote about sisterhood, was conceived in the wee hours. And before that, the FlairFriends launched because I had unbridled space to let creative juices do their thing. Now that I no longer have to, people wonder why I still get up at 4:30 and work in the dark. My answer: it’s the least boring time of the day.
Alli Q. DiVincenzo
PS. For more, read interview with Anthony Burrill here!