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Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

It’s summer here in New Zealand and we’re still in holiday mode so I asked my ten year old what she thought I should write about. “Family”, she said, and offered some advice on what to include. We all know family plays an important role in the successful development of children into contributing adult members of society. Positive psychology stresses the core role of our relationships in supporting our well-being. But knowing is not the same as doing.

My daughter’s key message was that “a family is one group not two” and that lots of adults seem to think a family is “a group of adults and a group of children.” Her killer shot was, “People shouldn’t have children and then forget all about them.”

When I finished feeling defensive, reeling off recent family activities and reassuring myself that she didn’t mean her parents, I was able to see her point. When we become very busy, managing a family can become a major logistics exercise based around enabling individuals to cram in as many commitments as possible (ranging from hair cuts to drum lessons to delivering workshops to soccer games to staff reviews). Family time is reduced to a child talking to whichever parent is driving them somewhere.

I know one family where, for years, the parents regarded time spent together as wasteful; in the name of efficiency they felt that one adult should be able to ‘manage’ the children and the other one should be gainfully employed at work or exercising or doing one of the myriad of tasks on any parent’s list.

Family – Attention Breeds Life

Relationship counseling often describes a relationship as having three entities: the two individuals and the relationship itself. In a family, it gets complicated because there’s each individual, the ‘couple relationship’ and the ‘family’ to consider, never mind the relationships between each individual pair in the family. Complicated, but not impossible. So how can we best look after our ‘family’ entity, whatever that might be for us?

If we say family time is important, but never plan for it and it falls off busy individual or parent schedules, then, clearly everything else we’re doing is more important. Really? Most people would agree that family is more important to them than their jobs or careers – it’s just not always easy to give it the priority it deserves.

Appreciative Inquiry into the Family

This year my resolution is to create more family time where we are ‘one group.’ To avoid creating a whole fleet of UFOs (unwanted family outings), I began with some appreciative inquiry (“what is appreciative inquiry?” here and here), asking each person to describe their favorite family time, what family means to them at its best, and what activities make them feel most connected and part of the family. (If you’re interested in using appreciative inquiry in everyday life, see Jacqueline Bascobert-Helm’s book “Appreciative Living”).

There were some “easy wins” that we can just keep doing. My daughter likes that we eat together – she doesn’t think it’s good for parents to always eat separately from the kids. This was at the core of her ‘family is one group not two’ message to me. She likes when we tell stories and have a laugh over dinner.

Creating New Family Activities – Together

Our plan to create new family activities involves each family member describing their three favorite things we do as a family. We’ll keep asking ‘what’s the best thing about that?’ until we find the essence of what that person enjoys in their chosen activity. The next stage is to create a new activity that includes at least one essential element for each person. The whole family will generate ideas for the new activities – no idea too outlandish or crazy.

We can then choose which ones are feasible (i.e. on this planet), affordable (i.e. don’t involve building a floating dream home) and which we most want to do. (This ‘3 into 1’ exercise is a variation on one described by Jenifer Fox in her book Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers).

It won’t be perfect. Each of us will still have to do some things that are not top of our lists. Belonging is not just connection; in a family it’s also about the fine arts of negotiation, consensus and compromise and appreciating others’ differences. However, by creating these activities together I hope we’ll build a sense of collective interest and ownership in our activities. And yes, the process of creating those activities may end up being among the best of family times.

But, knowing is not doing, or in this case, ideas are not action. To turn this plan into action will require us to be attentive. I will give this article to the most determined, pro-active, deadline-respecting and obligation-reminding one among us. I know my daughter will keep me on task and make sure family-as-one-group activities make it onto our schedules.



Bascobert-Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.

Fox, J. (2008). Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them. Viking Adult.

Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.

Maggie two (the killer shot) courtesy of millicent bystander
Aaahhh!!! (not a moment wasted!) by Evil Erin
Skydive Vietnam 2008, Kiwis’ round (family outing) courtesy of divemasterking2000
Why is my fork empty (family dinner) courtesy of www.photosbyalyssa.com
One more day of school!!!!!! (just checking you’ve done it) courtesy of lepiaf.geo

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Angus 7 January 2010 - 3:14 pm

Lovely piece Denise.
And greetings from Scotland where it is -20%.

Best regards


Denise Quinlan 7 January 2010 - 4:56 pm

Hi Angus,
Thank you – and best to you. Good luck with the Scottish winter. We’re having a strange summer here [snow on the peaks last night] where we seem to get summer in the morning and winter by late afternoon.

I’ve been enjoying your comments on dentists and floss on the listserv – always an interesting perspective!!

Kathryn Britton 8 January 2010 - 7:13 pm

Your conversation with your daughter reminds me of a lady I once mentored who told me she didn’t know how to have fun. I knew she had an 8-year-old son, so I suggested she ask him for ideas. He made her a manual with at least 10 suggestions, several of which involved spending more time with him.

I always figured that was one of my better suggestions as a mentor.


Stephen Borgman 9 January 2010 - 8:00 pm

Thank you for the fine information. It’s so refreshing to read about strength and resilience, and practical ways to bring that into our families.

Denise Quinlan 10 January 2010 - 4:20 pm

Hi Kathryn,
I love that idea – it’s all about asking an expert. And children tend to be experts in fun. We learn so much more when we involve others and their ideas.


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