One of the things I really appreciated about Bruce Feiler’s book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go out and Play, and Much More, is that he acknowledges the reality that of all the great advice that is out there, we simply cannot incorporate all of it. Self-help books give us plenty of lists of things to do and then we feel terrible when we can’t do them all. What Feiler provides are numerous strategies that you can pick the right ones for your family.
Sit down, this family eats together! (but should we?) I enjoy getting together with my family for dinner. I like to think it is quality time but when its over and everyone has talked over everyone else, and I’ve gotten upset for everyone interrupting each other (mostly interrupting me), my wife’s gotten upset that I got upset that I was interrupted as she reminds me that I’m also the most verbose and if no one interrupts they won’t get a word in edgewise, the boys are upset because I quashed their repetitive phrase of the day and my daughter’s upset because she’s overwhelmed – ah, another successful fun loving family meal. For those of you who remember the TV show The Waltons, isn’t that how you pictured family dinners were supposed to be? Damn you Waltons!
I always think we should be talking about incredible and lofty topics at dinner, such as quizzing the kids about what they learned in school (which I’m sure they love), and discussing the important topics of the day. But usually at the end of the meal I just feel like I missed an opportunity to spend time with my kids, even though they were sitting less than four feet from me. In this world, where everybody moves at the speed of light, tweeting, texting and Facebooking their way through their social media companions, is the family meal still relevant?
Yes, turns out it is.
Recent research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide and develop eating disorders (Feiler 35). Children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners (I must be doing something wrong), healthier diets and higher self-esteem (Feiler 35). A comprehensive study done at the University of Michigan discovered the amount of time children spend eating meals at home is the single biggest predictor of academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems (Feiler 35). Well now I really feel like a horrible parent. Like many college professors I spend much of my summer doing consulting projects which means I spend a lot of time on the road. The meals with all of us together are few and far between. So is it time to start investigating some rehab facilities just as a preemptive strike as my kids are now obviously doomed to a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll? Maybe not so fast.
It turns out that it does not have to be dinner nor does it have to be every night. With kids in all sorts of after-school activities and often two working parents in the household, dinner together every night around the Walton table just ain’t what it used to be. The real secret of getting the benefit of the family dinner is the ritual that has been developed. If you cant do every night tonight aim for once a week. Can’t do dinner, maybe do breakfast. No one home during the weekday, aim for the weekend (Feiler 38).
Just as there is a body of research that demonstrates the benefit of “the family dinner,” additional research says that kids who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges (Feiler 40). The stories that are told from grandparents and parents about times that they have struggled yet persevered and succeeded has a significant influence on our kids. The kids who know more about their families proved to be more resilient which allows them to moderate the effects of stress (Feiler 41). The answer has to do with the child being part of a larger family and seeing the healthy narrative of how the family survives through good times and bad (Feiler 41-42). And these stories are often told at the dinner table.
Feiler calls this the 10-50-1 formula – when you are together:
- Aim for 10 minutes of quality talk per meal (Feiler 45).
- Let your kids speak at least 50% the time (Feiler 45). That actually won’t be a problem of my house particularly if I let them chant whatever saying they just heard on TV, like, you got a plan, taco man!
- Teach your kids one new word every meal (Fieler 45). And I should probably quit reading anything that has to do with politics before I sit down to a meal or else that will be a pretty colorful word.
The above points related to Feiler’s Monday night only. Throughout the rest of the week he varied the themes, such as “autobiography night,” word games and bad-and-good, which is a game where everyone goes around and says what happened bad to them that day and then what happened good (Feiler 48-49). The point is to have a purpose and vary it up – just get the family talking and thinking.
Then comes a point of particularly concern. Many of our kids have had to live through massive human tragedy such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the shootings at Columbine, the Aurora 16 theaters, Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombings, two major wars – some of our kids have never known a time when the U.S. was not at war – and the list goes on. While the media typically has a field day showing story after story about every event, many people believe you should shield your children from it. Frankly, you should shield yourself from all that repetitive media coverage as its not good for you either, but consider this: when kids hear a loud noise they don’t look to see where the noise came from they look at you. If you’re not upset, they’re not upset (Feiler 50). If children are feeling a real trauma about something you should not force them to talk about it but be available to answer questions when they come up and explain what’s happening (Feiler 50).
With all of the wildfires here in Colorado this year I didn’t make an off-handed comment one day that we were actually pretty lucky that we don’t have to deal with hurricanes, large tornadoes, or earthquakes. Without missing a beat my daughter said, “no we just have people who shoot people all the time.” I never realized what an impact all of this tragedy was having on them – we now talk a little bit more about these events – not to induce panic and fear but to deal with their feelings and hear their thoughts. Then, hopefully, show them how adults cope with such tragedy, loss and uncertainty.
The dinner table may not be the best place to bring up these issues, but consider that they are on your kids’ minds anyway. When is now going to be a good time? I’m always amazed about the fears and thoughts that my kids come up with. They hear about friends of theirs at school and their friends getting divorced – to adults, we shrug our shoulders, make a sad face and say, ‘oh well,’ but to our kids, they secretly may fear that the same fate awaits their parents. Or they hear about a child in the community being kidnapped or killed, or other tragedy. You may wish to avoid these issues, but its exactly these stories of resiliency told at the dining room table, that are the armor our kids need against the harsh realities of the real world. As Christian Slater’s character said in the movie Pump up the Volume, “Talk Hard.”
Feiler, Bruce S. The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go out and Play, and Much More. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2013. Print.