Ok so I’m NOT having dinner with my family but I wish I was. Bear with me – this blog entry is a work-in-progess.
The time famine is a modern day phrase social psychologists use to describe the on-the-go, activity-filled, duel-career lifestyle of today’s average family. We are literally starving for time. How fitting then, to turn this phrase around and use it to suggest the best way to invest in your family: A moment to feast. Do you want to help ensure your kids are well adjusted, emotionally stable, and substance-free? Then, invite them to your dinner table.
My memories of mealtimes growing up were of formality, perfunctory etiquette and respectful manners. We always lived in what can only be described as typical mill towns, but my mother rarely backed down on the rules of engagement at the dinner table. Hands and face better be scrubbed clean by the time the silver dinner bell tinkled its call to the dining room table. All four children sat in eager but subdued anticipation as my father served up a portion to each of us… youngest first. Waste was not permitted but dessert was always served. No one dared leave the dinner table until everyone had finished every morsel, only when permission was granted and with appropriate thanks to the chef.
Fast-forward 30 years and my own table resembles nothing close to this ritual. First of all, I’m reasonably certain the last time we officially sat at our dining room table, was Christmas Eve – I kid you not. The more commonly used kitchen table where my own three now sit (not all of them officially sit; my daughter leans back with both knees balanced precariously against the table) is a scene of semi-chaos with multiple unrelated coincident conversations.
Nevertheless, despite the dichotomy of these dinner traditions within my own life, they represent some tradition and still involve gathering as a family. I am also vindicated knowing that there are now sufficient studies to support the fact that regular shared family meals can protect your kids against all types of destructive behaviour including drug and alcohol use, eating disorders, and support mental stability and overall well being. Consider the work of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Founded in 1992 by Former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr., this nonprofit organization states that its mission is to “inform Americans of the economic and social costs of substance abuse and its impact on their lives, as well as, remove the stigma of substance abuse and replace shame and despair with hope.” In examining the underlying factors associated with adolescent destructive behaviours such as alcohol and drug use, their 1996 study of 1,200 teens revealed that the majority of those who refrain from drug and alcohol use and other adolescent misbehaviours participated in another shared a family event: they sat down with their families on a regular basis for mealtimes. To take their results even further, when it came to predicting kids’ behaviour, eating dinner with the family was ranked of higher importance than going to church or getting grades at school. Since then, CASA has repeated this study annually and the golden nugget still holds true. They now include a section on family time on their website. Called Family Day, it is a national initiative aimed at reminding parents “all your kids really want at the dinner table is you.”
In her book The Surprising Power of Family Meals (yes, I read it), author Miriam Wienstein goes even further. She examines the link between this important family ritual and emotional stability, self-esteem, eating disorders, obesity, and substance abuse as well. Her research suggests there is a huge payoff for families who regularly eat meals together in lower instances of smoking, drug use and teen pregnancy, better results at school, understanding family cultural values, lower instances of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, improvement in vocabulary and conversational skills, stronger sense of resilience and just plain old good table manners. Oh no! Could mother have been right all along?
A family dinner satisfies two basic human needs: sustenance and human interaction. How easy it is to draw a link between our generation of convenience and individualism to increased incidences and earlier onset of substance abuse, eating disorders and depression in our teens. We should all be reminded that making and sharing regular family meals is one of the simplest ways to promote a healthy quality of life…plain and simple.