Gina Tentzeras and her husband Chris sit beside each other on the couch, facing twin TV sets on the credenza, their young son between them playing a puzzle game on his iPad. They’ve outfitted this family space in their Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home for a togetherness they enjoy passionately: video games.
“It’s very much a bonding thing for us,” she said.
They both have demanding jobs, but for one hour at least three times a week, she describes it as “a high priority.” She already envisions Demetri joining them, describing how their toddler plays the games on his iPad “with a shocking amount of skill and efficiency for a 3-year-old.”
Most of the way across the continent in Bountiful, Utah, Tonya and Jeff Olsen enjoy family time in the 1960 rambler they renovated with such closeness in mind. He’s watching TV, while she reads a few feet away. Zach, 15, and Aiden, 13, are there, as well, playing on their phones.
Families are congregating where members can hang out as a group even if they’re not pursuing the same activities. This casual turn in family life is reflected by the latest trend in home design: an airy, open floor plan, with the kitchen, dining and living space flowing into each other.
While homebuilders and decorators report more families forego a formal dining room, that choice is not coming at the expense of togetherness.
The National Association of Home Builders survey last year found most prospective homebuyers considered table space to eat together in the kitchen “must have” (36 percent) or “desirable” (49 percent), said Stephen Melman, head of the association’s economic and housing policy group. “So 85 percent were saying they do want to eat together in a way.”
Melman believes the open-air designs of today may be even more family friendly than older designs, creating “a lighter home where everybody is together and not separated off to individual rooms.”
“I think families tend to want to be together, certainly at home after a long day of work or school,” agreed Matthew Mead, nationally recognized home stylist, writer, photographer, lifestyle expert and magazine publisher.
Kitchens are becoming by far the most important spaces in her clients’ homes, “the heart of the home where family and friends can gather to relax, work and play,” said Tonya Olsen, owner and interior designer for LIV Showroom.
Research says meals together are an important part of healthy adolescence. Children in families that eat dinner together most nights are significantly less likely to use illegal drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol. And kids who make it to 21 without using those substances probably never will, says research from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Lori McClory and her husband bought an open concept home when the kids were little. The wide-open kitchen and dining room she once thought too noisy is now one of her favorite features. “We can talk with each other while putting the finishing touches on dinner, set the table and clean up after, not to mention over dinner,” she said.
Her kids are now 19 and 22 and usually away at college, but when they’re home in Grantham, New Hampshire, they try for dinner together at least three times a week, even if it’s “just a quick bite between all of us getting home from work and them leaving to hang with friends.”
Experts note families can mix up which meals they share, as long as there are lots of them, and get the same kind of results. You could eat together on the floor; it's not the "when" or the "where," but the "how." What's important is focused interaction, so turn off the TV.
A “hub” of activity
Everything that once happened in different rooms often happen now in one space, less formally, said home stylist Mead. “Eating together has become way more informal and a lot of it takes place on the run. Kids might go home and eat around the kitchen island. Mom and dad might sit at a table to eat from a plate. Space builds itself around our lifestyle. (Open-air design) provides places to crash and reconnect. It also contains the kind of chaos of everyday life and seems more OK."
There are also other ways outside of meal time to create parent-child engagement.
“So many families are leading very busy lives with schedules that involve commitments to work, play, school and church. It’s a lot to juggle. The home can help create a sanctuary for connection and communication,” said Karen Lankford, an American Society of Interior Designers home stylist in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Many homebuilders I work with today are adding a ‘hub,’ a centrally located space that can accommodate homework, bill paying, schedule coordination. ... The idea is to make a space that is easy for everyone to access and enjoy in a location that provides for together time while multi-tasking.”
It needn’t take a lot of room, but it means parents don’t disappear into a back office to pay bills or kids shut themselves in their rooms to do homework, said Lankford.
“It means that parents can lead their children by example when it comes to things like time-management and financial responsibility and they are readily available to hear about their child’s day and homework,” she said.
Both dining and family room areas are important to families, Dr. Angela Butts Chester of New Life Pastoral Counseling in Long Beach, California, agreed. Even families who can’t get schedules together to sit down for a meal can meet in the family room during different points in the day.
The rooms offer the same resources: "love, time, closeness and a sense of comfort,” she said. “One room simply allows you to lounge while the other does not. No matter if you are sitting up or laying down, eating or watching a movie together, you will always carry the emotions and stories associated with the bond you made with family.”
Mead said common spaces are “a compartment for daily life,” home to food, homework, daily check-ins, filled with surfaces for homework and technology or creating art. They are naturally multi-generational and multi-tasking, just like the people who use them.
Living (space) your values
Laura Barr, an educational consultant, said families flourish when their homes reflect what they value. She asks families to write it down. As she thumbed through some of the values families listed, she described how they might be incorporated into design.
“If they say ‘good books are important to us,’ then I want books everywhere, on beautiful bookshelves, coffee tables, where kids have access,” Barr said.
Some parents put their washer and dryer on the main floor so even very young kids can contribute to the household that way.
It’s “living with intention,” said Barr, creating opportunities and spaces to interact. Parents who love words might put a magnetic form of Scrabble on the fridge, then engage in impromptu mini games with their kids.
Mix it up
Olsen sees families interacting in countless ways, often side-by-side. At a recent baseball game, her kids punctuated the action on the field with commentary, little stories and showing their mom video on their phones.
She believes she thus learns a lot about her kids and what lights them up that she might not otherwise know. “This is an interesting dynamic, how families look now,” she said.
There’s room in a family’s life for lots of interactions. But parents should be sure they’re getting cooperative time along with parallel play, said family relationship expert Fran Walfish, psychologist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child.”
“Everyone doing their own thing sitting next to each other is a developmentally younger stage of relating," she said. "Parallel relating is great, but it does not substitute for one-on-one engagement as well as family unit engagement.”
What doesn’t matter is where it happens, she said. “The reason we have big problems today with gangs is all kids need to feel like they belong to a group. Remember the first group is the family of origin.”
The eye contact, the bantering, the lack of distractions provided by a family sit-down meal is hard to beat, she said. “That all goes in like penicillin and nothing replaces it. It is that which makes kids feel important, valued and special and allows a child to grow up expecting that from a significant other, vs. expecting crumbs.”