By Cheri Fuller
With the hectic schedules most parents, children's and teens have, it can be challenging to meet around the dinner table for a meal. But according to research, family dinners are making a comeback and are definitely worth the effort!
When I grew up as the fourth child among six kids, the dinner hour was a gathering place for the whole family. It was a noisy time of lively conversation, clattering dishes, and a frequent glass of spilled milk (usually mine). It wasn't a perfect time; some nights we kids squabbled or were grumpy. But the dinner table was where I was exposed to what was going on outside my little world of mud pies and paper dolls. There I heard the neighborhood news, found out what my big sisters had learned in school or the results of a political election in Dallas, the city where we lived.
A family dinner hour in which a meal and conversation are shared has the potential of becoming the centerpiece for everybody, youngest to oldest and friend or grandparent who is included. Granted it's a challenge to feed babies or toddlers in their high chairs and manage to carry on a coherent conversation, but you can start with a shorter amount of time and lengthen it as they get older.
Although there are lots of places and times you can talk, a family dinner around the table is one of the best. In fact, studies show children who have a regular family dinner time where they talk with their parents keep a closer connection with them, make higher grades and achieve more than kids who don't. That's because when students talk about what they're learning, they are able to process, understand and retain more.
A shared family meal is an anchor even if it's around a green salad and delivered pizza, when talk is fragmented or everyone wants to get to their next activity. If your kids are saying yuck to a new entrée you created, fidgeting in their seats, or bickering, be encouraged! It's during the teen years that you see the biggest benefits for the daily investment of shared mealtimes. Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely teens are to drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorder and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to delay having sex, learn manners and become good communicators. That sounds like it's more than worth doing!
Here are some tips to make your family's evening meal a time of enjoyment:
Aim for a consistent time, but be flexible. It gives kids a sense of security to know, "We'll all get together at 6:30 and eat." Even if the schedule's interrupted because of an event, you have a goal to shoot for. As the children got older, we had to plan around Justin's tennis practice, Chris' basketball practice, and Alison's piano or cross-country, but we aimed to get together as many nights as possible for dinner. If for a season, you miss evening meals together, have a tradition of Saturday morning pancakes or Sunday brunch.
Eliminate distractions. So you can tune into each other, turn off the TV, ipods, cell and home phones and computer. Let people leave voice mails and answer them later. Eating dinner in front of the TV doesn't foster family togetherness. And we are asked to turn off our cell phones in church and in movies; why not during family dinner time?
Encourage your kids to get involved in the discussion. Ask for their opinions and help even the younger ones feel part of the conversation. The question, "What did you learn today?" was a springboard for many interesting discussions at our house. Justin would share about a debate he participated in ethics class; Chris informed us which teams were in the NCAA playoffs. Alison read us a poem she'd written. We talked about school stuff, current events, things coming up.
Avoid negative or unpleasant family business like nagging about problems, handing out discipline for prior behavior, or hashing over how many Cs one of your kids got on their report card. You can deal with all those things later, but if you consistently talk about them at dinnertime, kids are going to dread getting together. Steer in a positive direction by asking, "What was the best part of your day?"
Make it special. The meal doesn't have to be a four-course dinner to be special. Ordinary spaghetti can become extraordinary when you pull out a checkered table cloth and have a themed dinner night, like Italian. Put a candle on the table and play music. On busy days you can simplify by having pizza, salad, and fruit slices or using the crock pot - one of the greatest inventions for busy moms. The important thing is being together! Inviting a guest or international student transforms an ordinary meal into something special, and having your child make a centerpiece with flowers or shells brings a center for the conversation.
As you gather around the table, thank God together by singing a prayer or letting different members of the family lead the blessing, and you'll be passing on important values, building a sense of belonging, and enjoying each other's company all at the same time.
Copyright 2007 Adapted from The Mom You're Meant to Be: Loving Your Kids While Leaning on God by Cheri Fuller. Use only by permission of the author, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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