7 Ways to Keep Your Family Close During These Challenging Times

By John Trent
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Happy young couple holding their two small children standing on a snowy field with mountains in the background
Learning how important it is to value each other’s differences and how to bend towards strength and softness at home can help make your family time even better. With all that in mind, here are several ideas to keep your family close and grow stronger together.

Are these challenging times? Absolutely! But keep this in mind: This, like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, is the crisis for our time. And during this time, we can choose to trust the Lord, stay calm, and bless on! We can choose to be strong and courageous as a family. And one way to do that is to build strength, love, and even fun into these challenging days where we’re stuck together (either by choice or by the government’s demand). Amidst all the craziness and crankiness from being tossed together so much and for so long, you can make the choice to do some practical and encouraging things to keep your family close!

So here we go! Direct from the Strong Families Emergency Closeness Kit, here are 7 things you can do as a family to stay close during these crazy COVID-19 times!  Know that not every idea or challenge may fit your exact situation or family. For example, you may have one child in high school struggling with the motivation to complete tons of homework online while right next to him at the table is an 18-month-old who’s just beginning to complete her sentences.

These ideas may help spur your creativity or encourage you to morph one of these ideas into something that can be of very real help to your family right now. Also, there are so many great ideas not shared here. For example, the Byrd family does lots of baking from scratch, including having the kids make homemade frosting. Remember, your family is made up of people with very different personalities. (Watch The Two Different Sides of Love on the recent Focus broadcast for more on that topic).

Remember: keeping your marriage strong during this time of change is crucial, not optional, for keeping your family close. Learning how important it is to value each other’s differences and how to bend towards strength and softness at home can help make your family time even better. With all that in mind, here are several ideas to keep your family close and grow stronger together.


One of the greatest challenges our country ever faced was the terrible attack and resulting loss of life at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That crisis brought the United States into World War II. But despite all that loss and hurt, in the very same month United States Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard began promoting Victory Gardens! It was obvious during those dark days after Pearl Harbor that there would be countless challenges to come. In many cases, those challenges resulted in shortages for a season. (Think about trying to find almost anything today at the supermarket. We called the store to place an online order and were told that every slot for a week is booked!)

A Victory Garden was a call to encourage people to do something small to fight back and help their family and country. Families could grow some of their own food to “plant a garden for victory!” So here’s how you can get your kids to plant your garden and get it up and growing in only a day or two! Your Victory Garden does not need to be something you actually eat, but it can be used more as a picture of how things can grow even in challenging times.

If you can still go to a grocery store where you’re at, or order online, look for a small sack of dried lima beans or dried kidney beans. The good thing is that these items are likely to still be on the shelf no matter what else is gone.

You’ll find the dried beans near the sacks of dried rice in a store. Buy the smallest sack of either bean that you can find. You’ll notice they beans are dry, meaning that you’d have to soak them in water if you were going to actually prepare them to eat. But don’t soak the beans. Instead, let your child water and grow them in a cup. This will encourage your child to see that things will grow and become better!

When you at the store buying beans, also buy some clear plastic cups. Clear cups make it easier to watch the plants grow from the beans. Have your kids put their names on the outside of the cup and decorate their cup with pictures or thoughts. Some examples could be:

  • “We’ll get through this!”
  • The Lord is our strength!”
  • “Zoa’s Victory Garden over COVID-19!”
  • “Brian’s Victory Beans!”

Next, have your kids wet a paper towel. Put the wet (but not soaked) paper towel inside the clear plastic cup, wrapping it around the sides and bottom. Now have your child pick out their “7 magic beans.”

Be sure to tell your kids that not all of the beans the choose will probably grow. Tell them that some might even grow what looks more like moss than anything else. But amazingly, some of the beans laid on this wet paper towel will start to sprout – in just a day or two! 

You can put some of the beans against the side of the cup or on the bottom. Again, don’t oversoak
the paper towel or all the beans will end up looking moldy. But don’t let the paper towel dry out either. A good way to keep the paper towel moist is with a spray bottle. Then let God’s nature take its course! Soon you’ll have your Victory Garden during these crazy times! It’s a great way to remind your kids each day that the plants will grow just like we will as families and as a country going through these tough times together.

Lord willing, most families will be watching the Olympics later this summer. When you do, you’ll be able to remember back to your own Slow-Motion Family Olympics during the COVID crisis. In particular, you’ll remember how much fun you had as a family competing in these four not-quite-real Olympic events as an evening of fun.This isn’t an exhaustive list of slow-motion Olympic events, so feel free to come up with your own.
Shortest Distance, Best Form, Slow-Motion Discus Toss! – The current Olympic records for the Discus are 69.89 m (229 ft. 3 1/2in) for men by Virgilijus Alekna in 2004, and 72.30m (237 ft. 2 1/2in) for women by Martina Hellmann in 1988. If you do this event correctly, your discus will travel about 6 to 12 inches. But here’s why everyone will love it when, with all your effort, it barely flies from your hand!

If you have a frisbee in the garage, that’s perfect. But a small thin book can work just as well. If you use a book, cover it with tin foil and mold the edges so it’s basically round. Remember, as with all these events, your goal is to do all of them in slow-motion! Also, it’s best if you model these events for your kids first. Trust us. You doing each event as a demonstration alone is worth capturing on video! Here’s how to do this first event:

Make a large circle with tape on the floor of the room that is now dedicated as your Olympic stadium! Make sure you go online or use your smart speaker and play the Olympic music for your very own Parade of Nations where everyone in the family gets to march around the room.

Now, demonstrate this first event for your kids by taking one slow step forward. Be sure to do this very slowly. Then start to slowly twirl around in a circle. After at least one complete, agonizingly slow turn – with your best grimace and shout – let go and drop your discus! Then as you complete your turn, look back over your shoulder slowly towards where your record-breaking throw would have gone far away, not at your feet where it actually fell.

If you’ll model it, they’ll try it! And it’s amazing how good some kids are at this slow-motion idea!

We suggest you clap for everyone and have everyone take a turn. If you’re more of a competitive family, you can have your kids create Olympic judging cards from 1 through 10. After each person has thrown their discus, the judges hold up the card they think represents how slowly and perfectly they feel the person did. However, as we’ll share later, we suggest if you do use the cards, only have “10s” to hold up. That way you can cheer on each person by holding up a perfect score.

Best Slow-Motion Dash Finish Line Lean –  Just like it sounds, you can absolutely do this dash indoors because it’s in slow-motion! You’ll need to get some masking or painters tape and put down a starting line. Then either use tape or get a roll of crepe paper streamers  to use as a finish line. Give each person a very slow “On… your… mark… get… set……Goooooooooo!”

Begin to run in very slow-motion. Again, be sure to model this for them first. Take five or six dramatic and molasses-slow steps until you get to the finish line. Then in super slow-motion, lean far across the finish line or slowly keep walking until you break the streamer tape. If you do use crape paper streamers, remember that they stretch. So tell your child it’s OK to just have it wrap around them if they don’t actually break it by stretching it.

We suggest you make a homemade ribbon or colored gold medal for each person. This is not a participation trophy. Instead, really look for how each person in the family might actually have done the best lean, the best slow-motion run or the best worst attempt at being slow. In other words, make a unique award for each kid.

Best Slow-Motion Gymnastics Balance Beam Event – Remember the tape for your starting and finishing line? You can also use it as your Olympic balance beam. Show your kids a picture of a real balance beam and just how high off the ground a gymnast really is as they do all those amazing things on that tiny, thin beam of wood! That’s the kind of picture you want to put in their minds as each of you does your best slow-motion Olympic balance beam routine! Mix up the routine with fake twists and turns – maybe even pretend flips – while staying on the tape beam. And don’t forget the very important dismount everyone must do, all in slow-motion! Again, have those ribbons ready and when you see something particularly funny or cool, that becomes the title of their gold medal award.

Best Pairs or Individual Slow-Motion Ice Skating Event – Yes, we’re mixing the Winter Olympics into the Summer Olympics but it still counts for your family fun time! And yes, here is where mom and dad can shine together by doing ice dancing, slow-motion style, in front of the kids. They’ll go nuts if you two really get into it! At the end of your routine, make sure you actually kiss your spouse as the kids cry, “Yuck!”

First, each person needs to first pick a song they’re going to ice dance to. Any song they like works whether it’s fast or slow. Each person is only going to do your skating routine for one minute. Get someone in the family to either look at a stopwatch, a watch with a second hand, or use the timer on your phone to start and stop the music. During that one minute, have each person or a couple “skate” in slow motion doing pretend leaps and jumps.

Real Olympians do things like the salchow loop, axel, or the Lutz –each named after the skater who invented that move. But each person or couple in your family should also come up with their own name for that one amazing slow-motion Olympic move they create
for their ice dancing routine. Make sure they announce it ahead of time. For example,I’ll be doing the Sofia Shuffle in the middle of my program, so be watching for it! It’s a triple circle with a one-handed push up and other special stuff.”

Again, we highly suggest you celebrate everyone and try and personalize a ribbon or medal for each person in each event, lest the oldest or most aggressive child ends up with six ribbons and another with none. It’s a small thing, but let competition get out of control and you’ll quickly be asking yourself, “How did that go so wrong?”

It’s unlikely that you’re going to have someone’s actual birthday during these next few weeks. But that’s no reason why you can’t declare each person in your family is going to have their own Very Merry Unbirthday!

If you haven’t seen the animated version of Alice in Wonderland, there’s a very funny part where the March Hare (yes, a rabbit) sings an unbirthday song to another character named the Mad Hatter. You can find the animated song on the web and play it for your children. Then let them know that for each of them, one day during your confinement during this COVID crisis is going to officially become a celebration of their unbirthday!

We’d suggest that you make one cupcake for each person’s unbirthday. Then you can split it (for example, cutting it in quarters if there are four of you) and serving it with milk. This is a small but fun taste of each person’s unbirthday. Feel free to do whipped cream and fruit or just the fruit. But the real fun comes when your family sings to that designated person like the movie clip you watched.

After you’ve sung to them, have them go into the other room to read or to watch a program for a short time. That’s because during this time, the rest of the family will be sitting at the table and making an unbirthday card for that person!

When making an unbirthday card, each person either writes or draws on construction paper something that they love about the person whose unbirthday it is! Perhaps it’s a strength you see that God has given them. Maybe it’s a special way they have of helping or blessing others. Or how they are  great at taking the lead and spurring others on to success.

When you’re done making their cards, bring them back into the room and read them your cards! This is a great way to bless and encourage them. Then everyone gets a bite of their ¼ of a cupcake! The goal is to focus on the unbirthday person. Let them pick the movie that everyone gets to watch, but make sure to overload them with praise and pictures of why they’re so valuable to you!

Just when the kids thought they were getting out of school! If your children are older and have to go online and complete assignments, then that’s great. But for those who are just getting extended time at home with no homework, ask any teacher – like the one I live with – their thoughts. They’ll tell you that it’s important to “keep them in the game” for when real school starts again. Be sure to tell them that school will start back up. It comforts children to know that they’re home now, but that life will return to normal.

“But I’m not a teacher!” you might say. Don’t worry! You don’t have to spent hours figuring out and policing homework for your kids. Instead, on each school day that they’re off, announce that you’re going to help them stay ready for when their school starts back up by starting up your own 20 minute speed school.

Most likely they’ll groan, but that’s when you tell them it called The 20 Minute Egg Timer Speed School. Or, if you have the time and the energy, make them a letter like the one Harry Potter received, inviting each of them to your 20 Minute Egg Timer Speed School. Which is what again?

Glad you asked! Because your kids will be asking you what it means. Each day, they’ll be doing 4 classes that are each 5 minutes long! Hence, 20 minutes of school! And each day, you appoint a different teacher! This means that one child gets to be the teacher each day, with a little help from you if they are younger.

First, you’ll need an egg timer. If you don’t actually have a real egg timer – look for one online that ticks like a real one. On the day they’re the teacher, that child gets to start and reset the egg timer. It’s a very important job.

The four classes are, of course, writing, math, spelling, and physical education! There is no recess, lunch, or snack break – that comes after the 20 minutes.

Class Notes for Writing – During this class, tell your kids that they will be writing and creating their own book. It will be a book they’ll be writing and creating each day over the course of the time spent sheltering together to fight the COVID virus.

Each day, when you start this first class with your egg timer, your child can write a chronicle – like a journal entry – of what they did or were thinking and feeling the day before. Or encourage them to be creative and say it’s OK make up a story that continues each day. For example, they could have a story where there are dinosaurs in the house one day and hundreds of bats the next. It’s their book.

Also, outside of class, have them starting creating some artwork for their book. Towards the end of your quarantine, have them do another art project which is to work on the cover of their book!

Make sure you have them put their name on the cover. For example, one title could be The COVID-19 Challenge – Story and Pictures By Chaquille Carter.  You never know. When your child looks back in 20 years on the book they made during the COVID quarantine of 2020, they may say, “That’s where I decided to become an author!”

When the egg timer goes off after 5 minutes of writing, make sure that their next class is somewhere else in the house! Remember: it’s OK for them to groan if they’re just getting into their story. They’ll be doing writing again the next day. With that class now over, have everyone march down the hall, outside to the garage, or back porch (weather permitting) to where the next class is located. That way they’re getting up and moving and stretching before the next class starts. When everyone is at their new class site, have that day’s teacher signal that it’s time for the next class to start and launch the egg timer for the next 5 minutes!

Class Notes for Math – There are so many great resources online. I’m going to encourage you to go online and find a short (no more than 5 minutes) brain quest, math problem, or problem set. Then it’s on to the next class!

Class Notes for Spelling – Here again, with only 5 minutes, you can either have your kids work through one of their old spelling lists or, at StrongFamilies.com, we suggest something little more creative and on target with what they’re experiencing.

Meaning, we’d suggest a new spelling word each day that links with what’s going on outside of the house. For example, one day it could be the word “Researcher.” Read a definition of the word. Write it on a white board or large piece of paper, and have them write it down. Then talk for just a moment about what a virus researcher is. For example, it is like those many scientists who are working 20 hours a day right now to bring us tests and medicine to help us in this crisis. (My twin brother is included in this list).

Another day, the word could be “first responder.” Your kids can then learn that right now, there are emergency room workers who are putting themselves and their families at risk by helping the men and women who do get sick. Make sure to include the Nurse Practitioners or PA’s in Urgent Care Centers. They are awesome first responders who are helping people who are sick and are administering COVID tests. They too – like our youngest daughter who is a Nurse Practitioner – are at risk every day as they help others.

Yet another day, your kids could learn the word “grocer.” Make sure your child knows that while grocers are technically not first responders, they are today! Have them spell and look up the word. But make sure they know that these are the people who are working countless hours right now to try and keep food on the shelves for everyone. All of them are heroes.

Again, pick words that help your children understand that this is a challenge. But, when our country and cities face a challenge, there are there are people like our police, scientists, pharmacists, lab techs and yes, even politicians, who are working like crazy to keep us safe and get help to people very soon. This is an opportunity to teach our kids who we can thank if we see them at work or at the store.

Class Notes for Physical Education – Here’s a great opportunity for you to go to sites like noodle.com and other websites that have yoga or other exercises for parents and children. Yes, we encourage you to get involved too! So many sites specialize in doing exercises with your children while they are spending time at home! Plus, with every class in a different place, you’re also getting them moving on their way to the next class, which is healthy for them and you!

Those are your four classes! These short classes are a fun way to keep your kids in the game by learning writing, spelling, math, and exercise with lots of fun and very few groans.

Binge watching of television may be something your kids cheer for, but it soon becomes boring and breeds poor attitudes. Get them up and moving – but also make sure you set aside some time for reading! Something that is super important for them to realize is that reading is helpful to their future – and fun!

To help your kids read in a fun yet significant way, at StrongFamilies.com we suggest that you pick a room where you can build a family fort or castle. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can just be some chairs pushed together into a circle with a blanket on top and everyone crawls in and huddles inside. Or you can be more creative if you’d like to build something. But whatever it looks like, it’s what can happen inside this fort or castle that can be super fun and meaningful.

This is an evening exercise. Wait until this is the last thing you do before the first person in the family has to go to bed. Have everyone get into their pajamas. Make sure each person brings a book inside the castle that they’re going to read by flashlight. Try to bring actual books. But a book on an iPad or reader is fine. Just make sure that your kids are actually reading, not surfing the Internet or playing games during this short time.

I mentioned giving everyone in the family a flashlight. Frankly, everyone should have a flashlight assigned to them and they know where it is, especially during challenging times. It’s OK to use the flashlight on your phone but remember that it burns down your battery dramatically so a real flashlight is way better and much more fun.

You’ll need a flashlight because you’re going to turn out all the lights in the room to try and make it as dark as you can before you crawl into your castle! Then, once everyone is inside and calmed down, use that egg timer and have everyone read for 20 or 30 minutes inside the fort. You can have an older child read to a younger child if that helps. When the timer goes off, ask your kids if they read something fun or important that they’d like to share with everyone.

Next comes the part that can be very cool – and very meaningful. After they’ve read stories written by others, it’s time for your family story time just before prayers and bed! Meaning while you’re inside your fort, it’s time for you to say it’s “The Burkirk Family Story Time!” Tell a story about something that happened in each child’s life when they were younger. It should be a story that you remember and is special to you. The next night, let the kids jump in and share a story from their life or from a sibling’s life.  

Don’t just make it about stories about them. You also need to share one story a night as well from when you were a child. It doesn’t have to be a time when you were facing a trial or challenge, but it might be! For example, there was a time when my mother went into the hospital when we were in 5th grade. She was there for all of our 5th grade year. Thankfully, she finally got better when one doctor figured out what was wrong with her which led to her getting to finally being able to come home. That’s a story I love (now) to tell of how God graciously brought our mom home. And it was helpful for our children to see not only something from their father’s past, but how our family got through a tough time together. Stories of courage or caring lived out from your past can encourage your children today.

Children love to hear their stories and they need to know a more about yours! So start off by reading stories but then make time for some family story telling about you, or about their grandmother or great-uncle or aunt as well. Stories of how the Lord showed up for a relative in a very tough time, or a story from when you and your spouse were first married, before you had kids! You’ll soon discover that while reading a story is fun, sharing a favorite family story or your story can make for great bonding time as well.  

It’s not just Melissa McCarthy and Jimmy Fallon who own lip syncing contests! Why don’t you call the family together one night and map out, create, and video your own lip sync of a favorite or fun song! If you want the whole family to be involved, then think about using ZOOM if you have a personal computer with a video camera built it. While ZOOM is mostly used for businesses, you can start a free account (as long as the meeting is under an hour). It’s easy to point the computer towards your group, hit record, and video everyone doing a lip sync!

Then here comes the challenge part. However you decide to capture your lip sync, then you’re going to email it to another family you know who likes having fun and is stuck at home! Perhaps this is another time when ZOOM or a similar app can come into play. You can send a ZOOM link to another family (or to the grandparents) and invite them to do a live video chat with you.

But when they get on – it’s really your family challenging their family
to a lip sync contest!
With everyone around you, tell them to watch the video that your family just sent them and then challenge them to come back with something that won’t come close, but just might be as good a version as you did. A lip sync challenge is a really fun way to have another family take a run at what you’ve done and priceless if you can get the grandparents to do it. Make sure you keep a copy of the video to watch for years to come.

For the average family with children, if they make it to church twice a month, that’s really great attendance. Because of the reality of having young children, someone in the family being sick, holidays, or sporting events, it’s not easy to make it to church every week even in the best of times. On these weekends where with the COVID virus when we’re being told not to gather in large groups like at church, it’s actually a great time to have a family at home church!

Here’s an example of what we did when we couldn’t go to church, but still wanted to have a short but meaningful time together. It’s super simple. First, start with telling your kids that you’re going to be doing church at home on Sunday morning!  

Play some music and then when everyone has settled down a bit, have someone open in prayer for your family and for our country during this COVID crisis time. Then sing together one family worship song. Next, you can have one special family instrument solo if a child is taking an instrument like the piano or flute. Do you have two budding musicians? The next child can do their solo at the next home church. And no, the song they play or sing doesn’t have to be a religious song. Just a joyful noise unto the Lord. From there, you’re going to pick and read one verse. Then do one activity that helps capture the idea of what you’re wanting to share with your family for your home church gathering.

Here’s one example of a home church we did as a family. After the opening prayer, singing a worship song, and the musical solo, it’s time to pick one verse with the main point you want to share. We’d suggest to tie it with the challenges around this terrible virus.

For example, with so many things shut down and so much talk of people getting sick, it can certainly be a scary time for children and their parents. It’s normal for children to wonder, “Is God really there? Particularly when we can’t see Him?” Frankly, adults can wonder that as well!

So after that family song or solo, tell the children, “OK, Kids, this morning at home church, we’re going to answer the question, “Is God there, even if we can’t see Him?”

Just let that question hang there. Next, give each child a balloon. Make sure you and your spouse take one as well. Balloons are choking hazards, so make sure you watch your little ones closely. For older children, demonstrate what you want them to do and help the younger ones who need it. Have each of your children blow up their balloon but do not tie it closed.

Instead, have everyone hold the end of their blown up balloon so that the air doesn’t escape. Then have everyone point their balloon at someone else in the family – and let go! The balloon will shoot forward and will make noise as it goes. Just watch how the kids go nuts with all the balloonsshooting around! Even if the balloon hits someo ne, which is rare, it doesn’t hurt. This isn’t something you would do in real church, but you’re at home church where  balloon blowing up and shooting at others is allowed.

Next, have your kids pick up their balloons. It’s helpful use a marker to put their initials on their balloon or use different colored balloons so they get their own back. After they’ve done it once, have them shoot the balloons again. And again! After three or four times,  they’ll be close to hyperventilating and be ready to sit still for a few minutes to listen to the rest of the story.

Gather up all the balloons, quiet your kids down, and have someone in the family read Colossians 1:15-16. I love the J.B. Phillips translation of these two verses: “Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. He existed before creation began, for it was through him that everything was made, whether spiritual or material, seen or unseen.”

Next, blow up your balloon. While you’re holding it, take them back to that question that you asked at the beginning. “Remember the question we are going to talk about today? Is God real, even if you
can’t see Him?”
Watch them nod their heads. Ask them, “Can you see air?”

Even in places where there is pollution, the answer is “no.” You can’t see air.

“But if air is real, does it have form and power?”

Then hold up your balloon and show your kids its shape. Then shoot your balloon across the room just like they’ve been doing. Close up with something like this:

“Let’s go back to that verse where we read, that “Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God.” In other words, just like air – God is there.

Even if we can’t see Him today, He’s real. He has a form and power to help and love us. That’s because God sent Jesus who many people did see – to show and teach us about the invisible God we can’t see. 

On this home church day, remember that Jesus is here for each of us and He’s real – even if we can’t see him. During this tough time for our family and our country, remember that Jesus made all those things we can see and even those things we can’t see. He can help, guide, protect, and love us in this tough time.

Then, close in prayer. Perhaps have one person pray for all those who have someone in their family who has gotten the coronavirus, that they’d get better soon. Have someone else pray for all those who are working so hard to protect and help those of us who have gotten the virus. Have someone else pray that God would bless and be with our country and all the rest of the places in the world that are being affected.

Finally, have some kind of special family treat ready.  We like fruit and whipped cream or enjoying some ready to bake cookies. Or you can plan it so that home church goes right into lunch.

There you go! Seven ways to build a little more closeness, caring, emotional and spiritual strength, and attachment with your family! You can find more ideas on strengthening your family here at Focus on the Family, and by visiting StrongFamilies.com, the ministry of Dr. Trent and his daughter Kari Trent Stageberg. Find out more ideas on doing church at home at www.StrongFamilies.com.

© 2020 Focus on the Family and John Trent. All rights reserved.


Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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