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The Benefits of Family Dinners

Something precious has been lost on the landscape of the American family. It’s been parodied in a recent television commercial that shows a marvelously stereotypical middle-class family sitting down to dinner together, but instead of engaging in any form of meaningful conversation, they use their cell phones to text message each other to pass the salt. And ironically, the perpetrator of it all is the father. The purpose here, other than some copywriter’s idea of a good hook, is to illustrate how texting is not just for kids anymore, that if you’re not hip to the process you are perhaps as out of step with the times as your kids think you are. One could argue that this is like the tobacco companies advertising family values – that, too, is somehow popping up in commercials – but in spite of itself it does make a point: the tradition of the “family dinner” has gone the way of the transistor radio.

Ours is a two-career culture, forced upon us by multiple mortgages and the prices of minivans (which equal the home mortgages of our parents) and the unfathomable costs of health insurance and college tuition. Layered over this is the stuff of life itself – soccer practice and guitar lessons and book clubs and pilates classes and the proliferation of the 60-hour work week, all of which conspire to put the simple gesture of families actually sitting down for a meal together in the realm of the utterly impossible. The days of the Cartwrights and the Cleavers dishing up mounds of mashed potatoes over shared recollections of their day and a solution-by-committee approach to life seem to be gone forever.

But not quite. Because the traditional family dinner has always been a choice, one carved from the strong wood of the family tree and held inviolate in the face of diversion. In business it’s been shown that company cultures begin at the top – as the brass goes, so go the troops – and so it is with families. Which means that parents and the choices they make in this regard remain the hope of the traditional family dinner, which calls not only for a rearranged list of priorities on their own part, but of a careful screening of their children’s activities that makes sharing time together an important part of the day. The upside is significant, not only in terms of memories but in the groundwork of family values it facilitates.

Structure is the key. Young children respond to a dinner-time ritual that calls for an allotted time to report the activities of the day and their response to it, followed by discussion and affirmation. It feels like a wonderful game, but it’s a precious exercise in personal growth, one in which listening and contributing is as valued as the limelight of center stage. When initiated within these structured boundaries it grows into a valued slice of life as the children mature, one that not even the demands of school, jobs and an emerging social life can completely dismantle. And who knows, it might even result in children and parents who end up actually liking each other.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to shoot for the Rockwellesque dining room scene of our parent’s day on a regular basis. After all, they didn’t have two sports, a second job and a painting class to consider. But a few designated nights a week can do wonders, evenings when a family puts life on pause and reconnects in a way that just might bring the tradition back to where it belongs, and where something lost has been resurrected.

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