4 ways to make this summer unforgettable for your family

Photo by  takahiro taguchi 

I love summers with my kids. No homework to review with them when I get home from work. Longer conversations during and after dinner. Spontaneous ice cream runs at night. Or whenever.

Now that our oldest is finishing eleventh grade, Dave and I can see high school graduation on the horizon. We are determined to savor this last year of experiences—including all that this summer holds—with Nathan.

Which is one of the many reasons I wanted to read Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s new book, The Power of Moments. The central theme of The Power of Moments is summarized by the authors: 

“Defining moments shape our lives, but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be the authors of them.”

Their goal is to help each of us create better, bigger, and more frequent “defining moments,” which they equate with short experiences that are “both memorable and meaningful.” These moments enrich our lives by changing the way we see the world, see ourselves, and connect with the people who matter most in our lives.

According to the Heath brothers’ research, significant moments happen when a hotel sets up a free popsicle hotline and delivers free ice cream at any time to any room.

Or when teachers decide they’re going to create a simulation game as memorable as prom.

Or when parents ask better questions of their kids, and muse together about bigger dreams, hopes, and goals.

Unforgettable moments matter in our families because while day-to-day consistency is the foundation of our relationships, we remember our lives in moments. From clarifying conversations to breathtaking risks, it’s the moments that stand out over time. This doesn’t mean we have to spend a lot of cash to engineer big moments. You may think an expensive vacation is what it takes to make a memory, but research shows we can make our time together more memorable by attending to three aspects of that time, whether it’s close to home or far away.

Three themes that move the needle

According to the research the Heath brothers have surveyed, parents can create more memorable and meaningful experiences with young people if we focus on three themes: 

First, boost sensory appeal. Second, raise the stakes. And third, break the script.

1. Boosting sensory appeal is one that comes easily to me, if you count offering our famous “Powell brownies” and root beer floats as a “sensory experience” for teenagers (which I do). But reading The Power of Moments made me realize I’ve gotten into ruts. I play the same music, we eat at the same restaurants, and I serve the same Powell brownies. Boosting sensory appeal is important because our brains encode memories more deeply when our experiences engage multiple senses.

2. Raising the stakes means placing yourself and young people in situations that are riskier. Adding a little risk can increase the power of experiences by stretching us and helping us learn something new—even if that learning comes through failure. Reading this book has made me realize that when I’m with young people, I want what we decide together, do together, and dare together to matter more. 

3. Breaking the script means doing something unpredictable. As much as I value tradition (and one of our three kids is especially tied to our family traditions), I’m realizing that in the name of “tradition,” I’ve gotten lazy. And predictable. When we break the typical family script, all of us have to engage the moment because we don’t automatically know what to do. This makes it more memorable. And research shows that surprises have the effect of stretching time—we remember them as longer than they actually occurred. 

Four ways to make family memories

So here’s how we can implement these three themes and set the stage for a more memorable summer with our kids. 

1. Bring new twists to our summer traditions. 

One of our early summer traditions is that we each set goals for the season. Typically, we get Starbucks drinks, sit outside on our back patio, and each write or draw what we hope to be and do this summer. I still want to do this, but what if this summer we go to a park instead or get a different snack? Or what if we ask our video-inclined kids to make a video instead of use the same colored pencils and paper we always do?

2. Be more responsive. 

According to the Heath brothers, the best research on relational moments boils down to this one sentence: “Our relationships are stronger when we perceive that our partners are responsive to us.” Why is responsiveness so important? Because it packs a threefold punch of understanding, validation, and caring. That means less time on my laptop and phone, and more time looking at my kids in the eye. And when I say I’ll be there “in a minute,” I’m there in 60ish seconds.

3. Find new (local) destinations. 

When our family wants to do something together, we usually take a hike or play games. Both are good habits, but maybe it’s time we think outside of the box. At the very least to a new hiking destination. But I’m hoping to break our pattern even further. I’ve found some good ideas for family fun by searching for online deals (many of which I don’t purchase, but they inspire other ideas), and I want to do more of that.

4. Make new food. 

I’m a pretty simple cook (and even calling myself a “cook” seems like an overstatement; I feel more like a “maker of food” than a “cook”). That works for our family, none of whom are picky eaters, but maybe it’s time to actually try some new dinner recipes. And make some new snacks and desserts for our kids and their friends (to serve alongside our Powell brownies; those aren’t going away any time soon). Or engage our kids in doing some baking together. Or host an epic cook-off competition in our kitchen, complete with guest judges.  

Moments matter, because memories matter. They help us ground our relationships in shared experience and history. They help us make meaning together. They connect us deeply with the ones for whom we care the most. Here’s to a few more of those moments this summer in all of our families. 

What about you? How do you want to infuse your summer with more memorable moments?