Wednesday, May 19, 2010


"Close your eyes and picture Family Dinner. June Cleaver is in an apron and pearls, Ward in a sweater and tie. The napkins are linen, the children are scrubbed, steam rises from the green-bean casserole, and even the dog listens intently to what is being said. . . . That ideal runs so strong and so deep in our culture and psyche that when experts talk about the value of family dinners, they may leave aside the clutter of contradictions. Just because we eat together does not mean we eat right: Domino's alone delivers a million pizzas on an average day. Just because we are sitting together doesn't mean we have anything to say: children bicker and fidget and daydream: parents stew over the remains of the day. Often the richest conversations, the moments of genuine intimacy; take place somewhere else, in the car, say, on the way back from soccer at dusk, when the low light and lack of eye contact allow secrets to surface.
Yet for all that, there is something about a shared meal - . . . . not once in a while but regularly, reliably - that anchors a family even on nights when the food is fast and the talk cheap and everyone has someplace else they'd rather be. And on those evenings when the mood is right and the family lingers, caught up in an idea or an argument explored in a shared safe place where no one is stupid or shy or ashamed, you get a glimpse of the power of this habit and why social scientists say such communion acts as a kind of vaccine, protecting kids from all manner of harm.
In fact, it's the experts in adolescent development who wax most emphatic about the value of family meals, for it's in the teenage years that this daily investment pays some of its biggest dividends. Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use. "If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouths with a tube," says Robin Fox. . . . "A meal is about civilizing children. It's about teaching them to be a member of their culture."
The most probing study of family eating patterns was published last year by the National Center on Addictions and Substance Abuse (CASA). . . . The researchers found essentially that family dinner gets better with practice; the less often a family eats together, the worse the experience is likely to be, the less healthy the food and the more meager the talk. Among those who eat together three or fewer times a week, 45% say the TV is on during meals. . . .and nearly one-third say there isn't much conversation. Such kids are also more than twice as likely as those who have frequent family meals to say there is a great deal of tension among family members, and they are much less likely to think their parents are proud of them.
The older that kids are, the more they may need this protected time together, but the less likely they are to get it. Although a majority of 12-year-olds in the CASA study said they had dinner with a parent seven nights a week, only a quarter of 17-year-olds did. . . . The families with the least educated parents, for example, eat together the most; parents with less than a high school education share more meals with their kids than do parents with high school diplomas or college degrees. That may end up acting as a generational corrective; kids who eat most often with their parents are 40% more likely to say they get mainly A's and B's in school than kids who have two or fewer family dinners a week. Foreign-born kids are much more likely to eat with their parents.
. . . . With both parents working and the kids shuttling between sports practices or attached to their screens at home, finding a time for everyone to sit around the same table, eating the same food and listening to one another, became a quaint kind of luxury. Meanwhile, the message embedded in the microwave was that time spent standing in front of a stove was time wasted. . . .
". . . . a contemporary style of parenting, particularly in the middle class, is overindulgence of children." argues William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties. "It treats them as customers who need to be pleased." By that, he means the willingness of parents to let dinner be an individual improvisation -- no routine, no rules, leave the television on, everyone eats what they want, teenagers take a plate to their room so they can keep IMing their friends. . . .
. . . . meals together send the message that citizenship in a family entails certain standards beyond individual whims. This is where a family builds its identity and culture. Legends are passed down, jokes rendered, eventually the wider world examined through the lens of a family's values. In addition, young kids pick up vocabulary and a sense of how conversation is structured. They hear how a problem is solved, learn to listen to other people's concerns and respect their tastes. "A meal is about sharing," says Doherty. "I see this trend where parents are preparing different meals for each kid, and it takes away from that. The sharing is the compromise. Not everyone gets their ideal menu every night."
Doherty heard from a YMCA camp counselor about the number of kids who arrive with a list of foods they won't eat and who require basic instruction from counselors on how to share a meal. "They have to teach them how to pass food around and serve each other. The kids have to learn to eat what's there. And they have to learn how to remain seated until everyone else is done.". . . .
When parents say their older kids are too busy or resistant to come to the table the way they did when they were 7, the dinner evangelists produce evidence to the contrary. The CASA study found that a majority of teens who ate three or fewer meals a week with their families wished they did so more often. Parents sometimes seem a little too eager to be rejected by their teenager sons and daughters, suggests Miriam Weinstein, a freelance journalist who wrote The Surprising Power of Family Meals. "We've sold ourselves on the idea that teenagers are obviously sick of their families, that they're bonded to their peer group," she says. . . . She scolds parents who blame their kids for undermining mealtime when the adults are co-conspirators. "It's become a badge of honour to say, 'I have no time, I am so busy,'" she says. . . . Parents may be undervaluing themselves when they conclude that sending kids off to every conceivable extracurricular activity is a better use of time than an hour spent around a table, just talking to Mom and Dad.
The family-meal crusaders offer lots of advice to parents seeking to recenter their household on the dinner table. Groups like Ready, Set, Relax!, based in Ringwood, N.J., have dispensed hundreds of kits to towns from Kentucky to California, coaching communities on how to fight overscheduling and carve out family downtime. More schools are offering basic cooking instructions. It turns out that when kids help prepare a meal, they are much more likely to eat it, and it's a useful skill that seems to build self esteem. Research on family meals does not explore whether it makes a difference if dinner is with two parents or one or even whether the meal needs to be dinner. For families whose schedules make evenings together a challenge, breakfast or lunch may have the same value. So pull up some chairs. Lose the TV. Let the phone go unanswered. And see where the moment takes you."
TIME "The Magic of the Family Meal " : Nancy Gibbs. Sunday June 4 2006.

Yes a LONG quote, but it's worth reading.
Family meals are not a petrol station which the children call briefly into, hastily collecting up the necessary 'bits', while the 'fuel' pumps into the 'tank'. Nor are they a fashion parade on the runway, of exotic creations, semi exhibited before those gathered, and where the intention and focus of being there is to rave about or criticise the Master Chief menu.
What is it then?
Family meals are about all that Nancy Gibbs' wonderful article gives us + the simple element of being with them, being together as a family. Yes, there needs to be some time spent on teaching manners, and handing down family legends and values. But to make the fantastic promises, of lessening the likelihood of our kids getting involved in smoking, drugs, getting depressed, considering suicide. . . ., a reality for our kids, we need to be real people, available and listeners. . . . Children need to be appreciated, listened to, loved, understood and known by their families on a regular basis and family meal times provide this and more.
The setting can be fine linen and crystal, or as casual as a BBQ or dinner around a fire; the food can be Versace style, basic leftovers or fat free, free of genetic modification, fully recyclable and low carbon footprint; but as parents we must be real, be open, be relaxed and not preoccupied with ourselves - this part is essential.
THISWEEKWITHTHEKIDS start having meals as a family - not 1 or 2 or a few - go for 1 everyday!

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