It's time to shake things up a little

Break free of your routine to enjoy family life more

I've decided to energise my family life this year. Life isn't exactly in a rut but I do feel that I always opt for what is known and what is comfortable. I am often slow to challenge myself, probably because I fear failure, and that is not always a good thing.

So I have devised a series of 12 challenges for 2012 -- one for each month effectively. My children just laughed when I told them the list. The best they could offer was that "it's a bit like the 12 labours of Heracles but easier". It had better be easier!

1. Learn a new activity or skill

When was the last time that you challenged yourself to learn something new? If you're like me, you're probably forever suggesting to your children that they try different sports or activities.

Sometimes they may believe that the activity is too difficult, or too boring, or isn't what their friends are doing. They may have had the experience of beginning something but not quite having the commitment to follow it through.

We know that role-modelling is a hugely important thing that parents do. It is really helpful for children to see us doing things and to learn that they too can try new things. So this year I'm going to learn the guitar.

I can't sing and I don't have great rhythm but I've always wanted to play the guitar. I have no doubt that it may prove to be a frustrating experience but then life can be frustrating sometimes.

It'll be good for my children to see me coping with that frustration and persevering nonetheless. Even if I'm not very good, which is quite likely to be the case, I hope that my children will see that I can do something I enjoy especially when I'm not perfect at it.

2. Climb a mountain

My children are a bit older, they range in age from seven to 13, and last year we had great intentions to climb Carauntoohil. But every weekend we planned to do so, the weather was bad.

Of course, I picked Carauntoohil because it is the highest mountain in Ireland and I was really anticipating the sense of achievement that I, and my family, would feel when we got to the top.

I have climbed many mountains around Ireland and each time that I reach a peak I feel a great sense of satisfaction and I love the fact that other people around me are probably feeling the same thing.

But I have never had that shared experience with my family and I would really love to feel the same kind of connectedness with them that I have felt with comparative strangers.

In many ways, it doesn't matter how high the mountain -- it's the simple fact that we are climbing it together that is important. I have no doubt that we will be tired and maybe even grumpy at different stages but that is just all the more opportunity to show each other that we can be supportive and encouraging.

3. Bake or cook food together once a month

I'm a disaster when it comes to sharing the responsibilities of cooking with my family. When I cook, and I do like to cook, I have to be on my own. I think it's because I'm such a control freak.

But food and eating are very nurturing things. Being able to provide food for my family touches on some very primitive emotions and is definitely part of my sense of being a father.

I would love my children to share some of my experiences of how preparing food can be nurturing and that means involving them in what I do in the kitchen. Also, once you get over the inevitable mess, it is great fun (apparently!).

4. Go out some clear night and look at the stars

I'm not big into astronomy but you don't need to be for the night sky to be important. Clear nights, ideally away from the city glow, are a truly awe-inspiring vista. Sharing that with children is so easy and yet can be so powerful that I'm amazed I don't do it more.

My plan is not to learn all the constellations, but simply to enjoy the majesty and the sense of place, with my children, and that can be achieved when we begin to talk about who we are and where we are in our world.

Looking at the night sky is a great way to remind yourself where we really fit in the grand scheme of things. Even big problems seem small in comparison to the enormity of space.

5. Do a first-aid course

For fear of becoming maudlin, my next task for 2012 is entirely practical and is to make sure that my family are as safe as possible.

When I was younger I trained as a lifeguard and worked happily at this for several summers. Back then I had some pretty sophisticated first-aid knowledge and I was confident that I knew what to do in most medical emergencies. But that was then.

This year I want to learn again how to properly strap up a sprain or, more vitally, to know the current best practice for carrying out CPR.

Depending on what age groupings they run courses for, I might even sign the children up as well. These are the kinds of life skills that we all need to learn.

6. Go to an art gallery

I'm not very artistic nor do I get excited by old masters but I have found that whenever I have gone to an art gallery I have discovered at least one painting that I love.

Art is one of those fundamentally human activities that truly differentiates us from other animals.

Creating and appreciating art is a true expression of human evolution. So this year I intend to bring my children to at least one gallery and just let them enjoy whatever picture grabs their fancy.

Of course I can't get away from being a psychologist and I know that when I am talking to them about what we've seen I'll be looking to see what their choices say about their inner world. You have to pity them: it's not easy living with me!

7. Have organised family meetings

This is one that will definitely please my wife. For years she has been reminding me of just how important these meetings are and now that my children are getting older I am finally starting to listen to her.

It is really good to have some kind of an open forum in a family, whether it be to air grievances or to make plans, or just simply to find out how everyone's doing.

As our children become more independent, they need to be more involved in the decisions that affect them. We need to formally set time aside or we may never get to talk about the important things.

8. Get a family portrait taken

I'm not interested in going to a photographer and having a fancy studio session to create some beautiful image of my family. I am interested, however, in recording how our family is growing and developing.

Since we got a digital camera seven years ago we have almost no new photographs of our children on display despite having over 8,000 photos on the computer.

Every so often, over the years, we've had a really nice picture of our family taken by friends or family and it always captures a moment. The visual image is so powerful at bringing back the memory and allows me to remember, and reimagine, aspects of my family or my children that I may have forgotten.

A particular smile, a haircut, an outfit or a location can all remind me of the essential goodness of my children that can get lost in the frenzy of day-to-day life.

So, by the end of this year I intend to have at least one new picture of all of us together, printed and framed on the wall, so that I can easily remember what my family means to me.

9. Plant something we can eat

As most of you know I live in the countryside in Co Clare. We even have a vegetable plot in our garden. In theory, then, it should be easy for me to grow at least some of my own food. But I'm lazy like that.

I'm also not entirely sold on the idea of self-sufficiency but I do recognise that food must come from somewhere and I'd rather know where it's coming from.

So this year, I'm going to start small. We won an apple tree in a raffle just before Christmas and so I am going to plant that.

Even if you don't have a garden you can grow tomatoes on your windowsill. Your children will love to watch them develop and they may even enjoy the tomatoes that get produced.

10. Organise a family visit to the Dail

I get very wound up by politics and find myself seething with anger at the almost criminal way some politicians have acted in the past.

I'm aware, however, that my children have no real context for understanding these rants. So this year I'm going to bring them up to the Dail and let them see, in action or non-action, the spectacle of two or three politicians looking bored while another politician drones through a scripted speech.

I'm hoping that the contrast between the history and the sense of occasion that the physical building will embody, and the practical indifference with which most of politics is enacted, might prompt me and my children to become more actively engaged in the kinds of political decisions that end up having a big impact on our lives.

Despite my own slightly jaded political cynicism, democracy still seems like the best system to have. If we are to be truly engaged in a democratic society then we must also take politics seriously. However, while the Dail remains some distant and intangible place in Dublin then politics itself might also remain distant and intangible for me and my family.

11. Have a monthly media-free weekend

I'm pretty sure that my children already see me as some kind of a media dictator, determined to prevent them from having any kind of fun or living any kind of digital life. But I strongly believe that TV, the internet and mobile phones are there to serve our needs and we do not need to be a slave to them.

In truth, I am the person who probably most needs to take a break from the computer and emails. However, I notice that this sense that we don't have enough time creeps into families and it is as if we put living on hold while we are constantly waiting for the next thing to happen. "I can't help you now, I just want to wait for the end of 'Fair City'," "Hang on while I just check this text message," "I'll be down in a minute. I just want to check something on the computer," "Sorry, were you talking to me? I was just updating my status."

Media is not intrinsically bad but like everything else it needs to find a place of balance within our lives. The pressure on children to be permanently connected is massive and even though they might complain about being disconnected, it's good for them to take a break.

12. Join up at our local library

Actually, this is a bit of a cheat because we just renewed our family membership of the Co Clare library, so I can feel good that I've already got a head start on my 12 tasks for the year.

Books and reading provide some of the balance to media connectivity and I love the fact that reading is such a tonic for the imagination. I enjoy reading and I'm delighted that it is one of those activities that seems to have passed on seamlessly to my children.

So, that is my list and my challenges for my family and myself. You're not obliged to make them the challenges for your family but you're certainly welcome to do so.

I'll be referring to my 12 tasks on my Facebook page and that's where I'll be keeping those who are interested updated as to my progress (

If you feel ready to challenge your family and yourself then you can join me and we can work away on our 12 tasks together. I hate doing things on my own and I would love the company.

For those of you who don't engage with Facebook remind me to report on my year of family dynamism and find out whether it made a difference. That'll be December's article!