Start a Revolution: Eat Dinner With Your Family
- Monday, September 19, 2005
"We are living in a time of intense individualism in a culture defined by competition and consumption," Weinstein observes. "It has become an article of faith that a parent's job is to provide every child with every opportunity to find his particular talent, interest, or bliss. But somehow, as we drive-thru our lives, we have given up something so modest, so humble, so available, that we never realized its worth. Family supper can be a bulwark against the pressures we all face everyday."
The shared family meal fulfills more than the function of feeding the family. In the intimate sphere of the shared meal, children learned how to engage in conversation and how to enjoy the experience of hearing others talk. The family meal became the context for sharing the events of the day, for dealing with family crises, and for building the bonds that facilitate family intimacy. Parents taught children how to think about the issues of the day by making these a part of the conversation that was shared around the table. Gentle admonitions and direct correction taught children how to respect others while eating, instilling an understanding of the basic habits that encourage mutual respect and make civilization possible.
Weinstein may hold what some view to be a rather romantic understanding of the shared meal, but she defends her argument by asking readers to remember the family meal times of their own childhood. For most of today's adults, there is still at least some memory of shared family meals and the experience of respecting meal times as a priority.
Something even more fundamental is at work here. Throughout human history, meals have been important opportunities for the establishment and maintenance of relationships -- for the forging of bonds and the deepening of intimacies. The shared family meal -- especially the shared supper -- is one of the few opportunities when parents and children look each other in the face for a sustained amount of time and have the kind of contact, matched with conversation, that they desperately need.
On this point, Weinstein marshals a considerable body of empirical data. In 1996, the national Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University [CASA] ran a study intending to see what differentiated kids involved in substance abuse from those who were not. CASA has repeated the surveys every year since. "And every year, eating supper together regularly as a family tops the list of variables that are within our control," Weinstein reports. "Kids who eat more family dinners do better than those who eat a few. Kids who share a few dinners weekly do better than the ones who have none at all."
The 2003 survey indicated that children and teens who share dinner with their families five or more nights a week were 32% likelier never to have tried cigarettes, 45% likelier to have never tried alcohol, and 24% likelier never to have smoked marijuana. "Those who eat lots of family dinners are almost twice as likely to get A's in school as their classmates who rarely eat as a family," Weinstein adds.
These days, many families find themselves eating in the car, scattered throughout the house, or facing a television set. Weinstein interviewed Witold Rybcezynsky, author of some of the most influential recent books on architecture and community, and asked him about the most beneficial setting for a shared family meal. In a fascinating response, Rybcezynsky largely ignored the question of place, but pointed to a more urgent issue. "We eat facing each other," he insisted. "It's the facing each other that's important."
Writing from a Jewish perspective, Weinstein understands the importance of ritual and structure in the lives of families. She is undoubtedly correct that the shared family meal becomes a barometer of family life and priorities. Her encouragement to restructure family schedules and priorities in order to recover the shared family meal is eloquently and convincingly sustained by her argument.
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