for release Friday September 26, 2003
by Melodie Davis
It's Dinnertime: Do You Know Where Your Kids Are?
Teens who eat dinner with their family six to seven times a week are at almost half the risk of abusing alcohol or drugs as teens who eat dinner with family twice a week or less, says the 2002 National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse. So what are these teens getting when they sit down to a meal, besides the meat and potatoes (or more likely these days, the salad or stir-fry)? On a good day, at a family meal children of any age get hands-on attention that leads to parents and kids who are more involved with each other's lives. They get useful practice in the art of dinner conversation (we hope). They get times of laughter and downright silliness: I remember the after-dinner conversations we had when I was growing up when especially we three girls would collapse in laughter sometimes to the point of tears. It can be a precious family bonding time.
Kids may be getting the only time each day the family gathers together to pray and ask a blessing. Somehow that simple act-especially if you've been arguing or grouchy right before-forces families to change gears and perhaps find peace amid the daily troubles we all have. These intangible gifts all go a long way (but of course are not foolproof) toward giving kids the glue they need to grow up with the ability to navigate through the negative pressures they face in our society.
In some areas of North America, this past Monday was declared by various authorities, "Eat dinner with your family day" (a regular declaration for the fourth Monday in September). But if you didn't observe it, don't despair. Its purposes will still be served to eat dinner with your family this Monday, and the Monday after that, and the Monday after that. The point of such days is more to bring awareness and develop a habit.
The idea is certainly one I've pushed for a long time and celebrate wholeheartedly. The loss of family dinnertime is one of the more unfortunate losses of our age-and we can probably blame it on good old Henry Ford and the invention of the car (helping all of us be more mobile and less likely to stay home).
If we talk about the loss of family dinnertime, it is appropriate to ask, when did it ever become a "thing" to begin with? Or is it just another "straw" enemy to point fingers at? Certainly one notion of it comes from the Hebrew custom of gathering for a special reverent meal each Sabbath day. All societies have long had feasts to celebrate special occasions, which implies that eating together is an important event. I can imagine a Stone Age family gathering around the fire to cook the day's game and swap stories. Maybe we get our image of family dinner time from Ozzie and Harriet TV shows from the '50s when Mom called Dad to the table and everyone waited for him to carve and serve the roast.
National studies (Kaiser Family Foundation) show that the number of family dinners is down by one third over the past 20 years. They attribute these statistics to people working such long hours (U.S. workers put in more overtime than workers in any other industrialized country, says a study from American University). However, certainly overscheduled kids are another huge part of the problem: between soccer practice, ballet lessons, swimming and piano, the result is that family dinners get short shrift. And then once kids are 15 or 16 many also hold down part time jobs, cutting further into family mealtime. Also, about two thirds of all families with children between 8 and 18 have the TV set on during meals. This doesn't help family conversation, either.
Okay, so you're not into an Ozzie and Harriet meal and work schedules make sitting down together every night impossible. Find one or two days to start with when you can eat together (perhaps it is Sunday dinner or a breakfast time.) Even if it is only ten minutes together, it is ten minutes of connecting. This probably also implies that someone actually does some cooking: we are more inclined to eat together when food has been prepared for all to share than when we each make our own thing. Take turns cooking if no one can or wants to do it regularly. If someone in the family absolutely won't participate, don't hold a grudge but do it anyway for those who will gather. Eat in the car or on the run if you have to-but make the effort to still pray together and initiate positive conversation. Over time, hopefully you will get to the place where having regular meals together becomes a treasured value for your family.
For a copy of an earlier column, "Whatever Happened to Dinner?" and reader responses to it, write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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