And to think, I’ve been feeling like a slacker for ten years.
According to a New York Times opinion piece, the family dinner is overrated.
Good news for me at last? Can I finally drag myself out from under the single parent guilt that has dogged me for a decade?
Lack of family dinners was a regular source of self-flagellation. Haven’t we all been told of the advisability of eating dinner together as a family by the Parental-Powers-That-Be? Doesn’t data show that kids are less likely to get into trouble when family dinners are part of the domestic rhythm?
According to the authors of the article, Ann Meier, associate professor of sociology at University of Minnesota, and Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, a recent study offers a somewhat different conclusion.
Family Dinner Frequency
Looking for causality between frequency of family dinners and instances of depression, substance abuse, or delinquency – the authors controlled for a variety of other factors (income, for example) and found the results to be something else.
So much so, in fact, that they write:
We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency. (Of course, it may be that family dinners have a stronger or more lasting effect on behavior that we didn’t study, like eating habits.)
They go on to explain that eating together is a “natural” way to interact, but influence is more about the “extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children.” Furthermore, they mention that parents may use time spent in the car with their kids as an opportunity for informative and connective communication.
Single Parent Panic or Panacea?
The younger my kids were, the more physical the parenting day. No news there, right?
But playing the role of two parents was easier with elementary school age children than adolescents, when it came to mechanics and interpersonal dynamics. That includes getting dinner on the table and encouraging conversation. As a single parent it was tiring, but you know the saying – little kids, little worries; big kids, big worries.
And personally, I’ve always found that food is conducive to conversation at any age and with anyone. We do interact more naturally, and we tend to relax.
But once my boisterous boys hit middle school? Between increasingly intense activities, schoolwork, peer pressures, and adolescent mood swings – they were cranky and I was cranky. Conversation? Try consternation! Maintaining energy for making dinner was tough enough, much less sustaining table chat when we were all in a hurry to move on to the evening’s tasks.
Side Benefits to Drive Time
Then again, when it came to drive time, that’s a different story.
In our one car household, shared vehicle time occurred daily – often twice, and sometimes more. And yes, we did use that time for discussion. There is something remarkably calming (to a teenager) about engaging over food, or (apparently) while driving. And the fact there’s a captive audience?
That helps, too.
As for the importance of eating together in a conventional setting?
The apparent conclusion from the authors of this article is:
… if you aren’t able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don’t beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids.
The Relationship Meal Plan
As I was reading this opinion piece, I couldn’t help but consider the implications for relationships in general. How many couples could benefit from captive connective time, whether around the dinner table, on a shared morning commute, or in any other setting that encourages speaking openly?
But don’t all the parties involved – men, women, teenagers, younger children – have to be less tired to take full advantage of shared time?
- How often do you manage to sit down and share dinner with your kids – or your partner, for that matter?
- What sort of discussion takes place around your dinner table?
- If you have a kid who won’t talk (as I did), does drive time do the trick?
- Do you beat yourself up over not sharing meals, or other aspects of traditional family time?
You May Also Enjoy: