At least in my family, dinnertime is really our only daily family ritual. Rituals are any kind of routine that has symbolic or expressive meaning. They are important because they illustrate our values—kids know intuitively that we celebrate or ritualize the things we believe are most important. There are two reasons dinnertime can be important for your kids' well-being:
1: It makes them feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves (that would be your family). As I've said before, 50 years of happiness research has consistently told us that human happiness is all about meaningful social connections. Kids need to feel a part of their family on a daily basis, and dinnertime is a terrific way to accomplish this.
Running out of things to talk about? Start telling your kids some family history. Research shows that telling stories about your shared past creates strong and secure emotional bonds, which directly impacts how well families are functioning. Turns out this study also found that kids who knew a lot about their family history learned it at dinnertime.
I also try to think about what the way we get dinner on the table says symbolically about our family. We sit together at the table to literally create a family circle. And we try to get dinner on the table as a team. We try to cook as a team, even if it just means having Molly press start on the microwave and Fiona wash the lettuce. (Even if it takes longer, involves nagging someone to set the table, and everyone is starving and cranky.) We try clean up together, too, though again it is often tempting to let the kids leave the table while the adults hang around and talk. The idea is to show our children that this is the way that we care for each other on a daily basis.
Sometimes it definitely is easier to do the mom-as-waiter/personal chef routine. But when we wait on our children the symbolic meaning is that they are passive actors who are entitled to our service—rather than lucky and active participants in a larger whole.
2: Dinnertime can habitually evoke positive emotions for everyone at the table. The easiest way to do this is to say grace. If you aren't especially religious, make it a general blessing or a toast—invent your own family tradition. In terms of this conversation, it's not important that it be about God. A blessing is an incredible opportunity to habitually cultivate positive emotions. Think about it:
1) Usually you are expressing some sort of gratitude or appreciation for the food (my kids often spontaneously give thanks for bigger things – like "being in this world"). Gratitude is a positive emotion about the past.
2) A blessing (or a toast or whatever) can at the same time be a moment of contentment—joy that comes from hearing a little girl give thanks, gladness that comes from all being together. Contentment, joy, gladness: these are positive emotions about the present.
3) Saying grace can also be an act of faith, which is a form of optimism and positive emotion about the future.
4) Joining hands around a table is an act of love. It says I care enough about you enough to share this meal with you. Love is a positive emotion about others.
If a happy life is defined as one that is full of positive emotions, a blessing at dinnertime is a powerful tool for cultivating happiness.
I am often asked if there are other things a family can do instead of have dinner together that will work in the same way – Sunday Parcheesi night or something. But think about all those positive emotions that go with grace – perhaps a nighttime family prayer could work in a similar way, but reading probably wouldn't. And think about all the modeled behaviors we talked about last week. What else could you do that teaches good nutrition and social skills? Plus teaches about family history and establishes a strong sense of belonging? Perhaps storytelling in a circle, as a family. At breakfast.
I fear I'm really pouring on the pressure to have dinner together, and to do it well. I know how darn difficult this can be. Last night I sat at the table with my two daughters eating a Trader Joe's frozen delite thinking: this doesn't feel symbolically meaningful. No one wanted to tell me about their day. I don't think anyone learned any new words. Grace happened, but everyone was curiously thankful for the same things that they were thankful for the night before. There was a lot of complaining about the food and getting out of chairs. But then when I was putting the kids to bed, Fiona told me that dinnertime was one of the three best things about her day. Go figure.
Really, the fact that getting a family mealtime together is so difficult is a big social problem, not an individual one. Our households have shrunk down so much that what used to be a community affair of people working together to get food on the table is know usually the mother's problem. Broad economic forces mean that many people are now at work when a generation ago they would have been eating dinner at home. And countering these forces is hard.
I keep saying that what I really should do is to combine forces with some other families – I live in a neighborhood dense with people I'd love to have dinner with regularly. So long as the adults and children eat together—rather than segregating them at a kids' table as our family is prone to do—we should all reap the benefits of family dinnertime. Friends, please consider this an open invitation to come to my house for dinner.
How do you manage family mealtimes at your house? Lots of people have been sending me emails with comments about these postings. I love to hear from you, and I'd love it even more if you'd post your comments for everyone else's benefit. What other powerful family rituals do you have?
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