The Rathi family
What if you were finally given something you've always wanted? Something you've been dreaming about since childhood. Would you treasure it and use it every day—or would you leave it on a shelf to collect dust, an afterthought in your otherwise busy life?

Unfortunately, many families are choosing to ignore the greatest gift ever given—one another. For many, life has become a frantic schedule of activities and carpools. Meals are had on the run, and by the time everyone's home and schoolwork is finished, no one has the energy for anything else but sleep. Each day is an endless race against the clock, robbing families of the most nourishing part of life—connection.

It's time to take back your family. Here's the challenge: For one week, cancel all extracurricular activities. That's right—all of them. The goal of this exercise is to reconnect as a family and reduce the outside noise and relentless activity that's interfering with your time together.

Coming along on this journey with me is the Rathi family—Tanuja and Rajeev and their daughters Nina, Savi and Sabrina. To say this family is overscheduled would be an understatement—Tanuja needs a color-coded calendar to get through the week! Throughout the challenge, check The Rathi Report to see how they're doing.

The Challenge Steps: 
Day 1: Honor Your Family
Day 2: Observe and Report
Day 3: Do Something Out of the Ordinary
Day 4: Plan a Dad's Day
Day 5: A Night Out with Mom
Day 6: Plan a Family Day
Day 7: Make a Change
The Rathi family dinner
Peter: Let's get the paperwork out of the way first.

Download this chart and print one copy for each of your children.  PDF

Have them list each activity and explain why they like it—or why they don't. You'll notice there's an extra column at the end of the chart. Leave that blank and put the charts away for safekeeping. You'll need them again on Day 7.

Now that's done, it's time to sit down as a family. Forgotten what that's like? Prepare a real family meal to honor your bond. Make your family's favorite food, break out the best china and have a meal together in your dining room. Don't rush and focus on the meal, your family and the shared time together. Use the time to reconnect, to talk about what's been lost in the shuffle of activities and how you can get that back as a family. Go around the table and take turns saying one thing you'd each like to do together as a family this coming week.

And don't forget to take a moment to congratulate yourselves. The journey you are embarking on could very well change the course of all your lives.

Tanuja: Today was the first day of our challenge. On any given week ,we have about 40 hours of activities for all three kids. Gymnastic, tennis, piano, horseback riding, Science Olympiad, tutors, cheerleading and various other school activities.

The kids got home at 3:30. Homework was done very fast! Because I was not driving anyone around, I had the time to make a nice family dinner. I asked the kids if they wanted to sit in the formal dining room (which our family has never eaten in...don't know why). They were so excited for this little thing! We had a nice family dinner, which we would have normally not done on Monday.

Watch the Rathis share their hopes for the week at dinner.  Watch

I had time to sit down and talk with each of the kids, one on one about their day. I did catch my eldest, Nina, who had finished her homework, playing on her Nintendo game (which she never has the time to do). I did actually worry that if we got rid of activities that our kids would plug into technology more. All in all, it was a pretty peaceful day, and I enjoyed not having to pick up and drop off anyone today!

Family game
Peter: Once dinner's been served and homework has been finished, sit back and watch how your family interacts. Do they stay in the same room, or do they scatter? How much are they using technology to fill the void of their other activities? Tonight's the night to identify some potentially bad habits and nip them in the bud.

After about an hour, organize an activity the whole family can participate in. This doesn't mean watching a TV show or a movie together—it means interacting with each other and reconnecting as a family. If you notice your kids clamoring for the video game system, challenge the family to a Guitar Hero tournament. If your kids retreated into different stories, ask them to pick one and read it aloud as a family. If your kids are all over the map, call them in for an activity that unites you all. It could be a great time to break out the photo albums and tell fun family stories as you relive the memories. Even something as silly as a game of charades will work to get you talking, laughing and interacting with each other.

Tanuja: It was another nice day of not running around. I could feel my youngest, Sabrina, getting a little irritated today from boredom. I was able to make one of their favorite dinners because I had time. We all sat down for a nice dinner.

After dinner, everyone scattered to their rooms. Sabrina wanted to play a game. I had to persuade the others to come play a game. Once they came, they did enjoy playing a game together.

Drop in on some of the family game night!  Watch

After that, Sabrina wanted me to read her a book, which I have not done in a long time. We read all her favorite books, which really brought back some fond memories. My other two daughters did not want to join us, as they were in their rooms doing their own things (Savi on her DS playing a game, and Nina wanting to read her own book). My husband was downstairs on the computer searching the Net.

The one thing I am realizing today is just because you create more time at home, doesn't mean that you will spend quality time together. It is very easy for all of us to stay "busy" with our own things, even if we are under the same roof. One person in the family needs to make sure that we do spend quality time together and make that a priority.

Raj: I think the dogs are starting to wonder what is going on. Everyone is home and paying attention to them. Things actually seem less chaotic. Kids have time to get everything done, but I'm wondering if they are missing out on their fun stuff—piano, horseback riding, gymnastics. There is a slow technology creep going on in the house (Nintendo DSi's, BlackBerrys, etc.), so we'll be on the lookout for this in future days.

Family picnic
Peter: Great job! You've made it to Day 3. Feeling tempted to give in to one activity? Are the kids frustrated? That's natural, and you can all soldier through. My prescription is to do something out of the ordinary tonight.

Instead of eating dinner at the table, have a picnic in your living room. Does your family love camping? Break out the tent and sleep in the backyard on a school night (just make sure to have some kind of alarm handy). When everyone's experiencing something new and having fun, I guarantee you no one will wish she was at tennis practice or craving for one more activity or practice out of the house.

Tanuja: I am really starting to enjoy having no activities! I think the kids are really starting to enjoy just hanging out at home. The house is so peaceful because the kids have been behaving so nicely. Now, I am realizing that the stress of all the activities is causing some of the behavior problems at home. Homework was done by 6:30!

Nina: Dinner today was fun! We sat by the fire and had a "picnic." Then our family sat by the fire and read. My sisters and I did a great job of doing our homework fast. I am beginning to miss only certain activities. I thought that I would miss gymnastics, but I really I am relieved that I don't have to go. The part of gymnastics that I am missing is the tumbling. I am also missing cheerleading. I am falling behind in learning the cheers and am eager to learn them. Tennis is a different story. I suspected that I would not be missing it, and I was kind of right. I don't know if I should quit it or not. My tennis coach even called me and asked me to think about keeping up doing tennis. I don't know what to do!

Peter: Have your husband, partner or close relative plan a night out with just him and the kids. It could be a trip to the park, ice cream shop or even a trip to the local arcade. If not all your kids are old enough to go, take some me-time for yourself and give everyone else the run of the house, or stay home and spend some one-on-one time with your little one.

Raj: Today was a fun evening—daddy-daughter dance. Girls didn't really want to dance and are at that age where I'm not sure it's "cool" to hang out with just Daddy. Despite this initial sentiment, we all had a really good time. Even danced with the kids a couple of times! Fun evening, which was memorable for all.

Savi: I got to finish my math homework early. Sabrina and I went to the daddy-daughter dance with my dad today. I am happy to take a rest from activities so when we come home from school we are not running everywhere trying to get places. We went to dinner with three other friends and their dads and then went to the dance. I got to spend a lot of time with my dad. Normally, we would be going different places when my dad gets home from work.

Tanuja: It was another peaceful day. The younger two kids went to dinner and a dance with their dad when normally they would have many activities for a Thursday evening. I spent the evening with Nina. After she finished her homework, we went out to grab some ice cream and talk.

Girls' night out
Peter: Why let your husband or partner have all the fun? Take the kids to dinner and a movie, find a local concert, play or exhibit to visit or volunteer at the local food pantry or animal shelter.

Tanuja: Today after school I took my eldest daughter, her friends and their moms to New Moon. It was so much fun to go on an outing with the kids and the other moms—a total girls' night out. We all went to a nice dinner after.

Nina: Today, my mom, friends and I went to New Moon. It was really fun. After, we went to a nice dinner at an Italian place. At dinner, I had a really great time. This was the first time doing a mother-daughter dinner.

Savi: Today I was able to go to my friend's sister's birthday party. Normally, I would have tennis and would not be able to go to my friend's birthday. After the birthday party, we came home and waited for mom and Nina, who were late coming home from the movie! We went downtown, after they came home, to stay for the weekend. When we were in the hotel room, we fought about who slept where, and then we mostly talked until midnight without my parents knowing!

Family day in Chicago
Peter: If you start this challenge on a Monday, then this assignment should fall on a Saturday, which is a notoriously busy day for overscheduled families. Celebrate your freedom by planning an all-day activity with the family.

If you have the means, spend the night somewhere within driving distance of your home. Swim at the hotel pool, explore the local attractions—every town has a ton of free or inexpensive activities, so this won't break the bank—and leave plenty of time to explore the town.

If a "staycation" is in order, have each child choose one activity and try them all! You could play a pickup basketball game, visit the local children's museum and have a screening of Up all in the same day. No matter what you choose to do, you're doing it together.

Tanuja: Today we got up and went for a family breakfast. We had a nice conversation at breakfast. After that, we shopped a little and then headed to the new modern wing of the Art Institute. The kids enjoyed seeing the interesting art. After the Art Institute, we walked on State Street enjoying the Macy's windows. Later in the afternoon, the holiday parade and fireworks were magnificent. After enjoying the fireworks, we went to a nice dinner. It was a wonderful family meal with great conversation. We talked about the week and the activities that they would like to eliminate. Overall, it was a nice get away in the city, which we don't get to do very often because of the busy schedule.

Raj: Fun day filled with nothing but family time. Complaints were limited to "we're walking too much" while the kids enjoyed the food and the sightseeing. The icing on the cake was the parade and fireworks followed by a great family meal, where all of us reflected on the past six days.

Nina: I enjoyed having my Saturday free, because normally I would have gymnastics, Science Olympiad and tennis. (That's five hours of my day!) This was good for me because I realized what a day without any activities was like.

Savi: Today we went to breakfast. After breakfast, we went shopping a little. We went to the modern exhibit of the Art Institute after shopping. I was surprised by what could be art.

We went back to the hotel and stayed there until the hour before the parade. We went down to the side of the curb, but we couldn't get a spot where we could see, so we stopped to get hot chocolate and went back to our room. It turned out our room had the perfect view.

Sabrina: I had fun hanging out with my family doing things in the city!

Rathi family
Peter: Congratulations! You've made it to the last day of the challenge. Now's the time to really get honest with one another.

Set aside time to talk as a family, maybe over breakfast or a celebratory challenge dinner. Discuss what you've learned together over the week and how spending more time as a family has affected your lives. Then, bring out the charts your children completed on the first day of the challenge. In the final column, have them rate how much they missed each activity. Ask each child to share what they can't wait to get back to. Finally, ask them to reveal the activity they missed the least and encourage them to drop it.

Don't get me wrong, hobbies, interests and activities can do a world of good for a child's imagination and teach them much more than just the skill or sport at hand. But overscheduling can spell disaster for your kids and your family. Too much of anything is not a good thing. And chances are, there are a few activities in there they never liked in the first place, so why not take that time and funnel it back into your family or your child's true passion?

Once everyone has made their decision, total up how many free hours you'll have a week. As a family, decide how you will use that time to create new family traditions. Keep it simple. It could be a weekly Sunday brunch, movie night every Friday or a monthly visit to a new park or play or art exhibit.

As your last step in the challenge, download this pledge. Put your family vision in writing and have everyone in the family sign their names. Post it on the fridge as a reminder that the greatest gift you'll ever receive is already yours.

It has been an interesting week. Each child identified one activity that we will be eliminating this week. This will give us five more hours a week, not to mention the cost savings of not doing these activities! The five hours may not seem like a lot, but most of those will be on the weekend, which will allow us to do more family activities.

It was interesting to evaluate why we have the kids in some activities. I felt apprehensive on giving some activities up, as we have invested time and money for them to get to the level they are at. But through this process we really looked at which activities the kids really enjoyed. What is most important is that the kids are doing things that they really enjoy. This activity was really life-changing because it made us focus on what is really important. It is really easy to get sucked in to having your kids do all the activities to make sure that they have the best. But this allowed us to really look at: "Do we really need to have them do all these activities? Is this what is really important? What are the kids going to remember when they grow up? All the activities that they did when they were young, or the fun family times that we did not have the time for?" I personally want to create memorable family times. I want to make sure that the kids feel connected to us as they get older. This is the time that we must make it a priority to focus on our family rather than doing too much.

I realized that the mom is usually the one that needs to make sure we have focused family time. I found that without as many activities, I was able to be pretty creative to come up with new, fun activities. We decided after this week that we would make sure that Sundays would be family dinner and game night. We would have dinner together each evening during the week. Two nights this means that we will wait for Nina to come home from gymnastics and have dinner at 7 p.m. I will also try to make sure that we have more fun time with the kids and also that the kids have more playdates and fun with friends (which has not been happening too often). Also, I realized that I need to make sure that my husband and I have date nights on a regular basis. We used to do this more, but with the kids' schedules we have not been as good about this. Overall, I would highly recommend this challenge to everyone. It really makes you realize what is important and make changes

Raj: This challenge has allowed all of us to understand what we missed and what we can certainly live without. For this, I think we are all thankful and would recommend such an exercise to anyone that was really willing to dive into the deep end of the pool and experience a different way of connecting back to what is most important—quality time with the family.

Nina: This week was a very relaxing vacation. I did not do anything but school and family activities. This blocked out all of the activities that I did. From what I think, I am going to quit tennis. During the week, I missed the other activities that I did the most. Hopefully, my life will be much simpler. We spent a lot of time as a family this week. From playing games to taking fun vacations, our family did it all. Not doing any activities made time to do family things. I enjoyed doing family activities.

Savi: I liked some days but not the others. Monday and Wednesday were not my favorite days because I missed horseback riding. The other days I was okay. I was bored at home not doing any stuff besides homework. When I would get home from school, I would start my homework then finish it before dinner. I liked being able to do lots of things as a family that we normally don't get to do. 
Sabrina: The challenge was very easy and hard in some ways. It was easy on me because I got to see everyone at home more often. Also, when my friends asked me if I can go to their house, I didn't have to say no. Usually, I have an activity after school, or I am too busy to have time with my friends. I missed my piano more than anything! I decided to quit tennis because it was not something that I enjoyed. I decide to keep only two activities that I love, piano and gymnastics. I would never give piano up, not even for $1 million. The challenge is making stuff easier on the people in our family, including me. It was a great week! 

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