The importance of family meals

By Peter Ehrlich

On occasion, when I was growing up, a teenage buddy or I would dead-stop our ball hockey game or hang session by announcing, “I have to go home for dinner.”

First there was silence, then the reactions.

Reaction to this moment of teen blasphemy was divided into two camps; those of who came from “normal, caring families” and those who came from scattered, less caring families.

For those of us guys who came from families where our parents or parent made it their business to let us know that we mattered, we shrugged off the news as no big deal.

We accepted that family mealtime was a necessary, sacred tradition, like having to put up with crazy Uncle Danny at least four times a year.

For the boys who came from families where there was no such thing as the family meal, the reaction was a violent slam of hockey stick on pavement and mutterings underneath breath that soon turned into name-calling. The condemnation was usually, “What a wussie.”

We “wussies” never refuted the accusation. Maybe those tough guys were right. Maybe, deep down, we were a tad envious of those “ruffians” who had cast off every single responsibility to the family. Because, when they stop meeting with their families at the table, that’s exactly what children are doing: abandoning the family ship for the first time.

Looking back, I suppose we just felt lucky to have the family meal. We may have been called “wussies”, but we knew we had parents who loved us enough to provide us with boundaries.

And that essentially is what the family meal is. It’s the super glue that binds a family together. It’s “check in time.”

Once when I was driving in my car with my girlfriend, she said something that’s stuck with me: “You know what you do really well?” she asked. “You check in. Never does a lot of time pass without you asking me how I’m doing.”)

Well, isn’t that what love is? It’s about checking in, never getting so lost in your own world that you forget who you’re sharing the world with.

When I speak of the shared family meal, I am not referring to a special holiday broo-haa-haas like Christmas, Chanukah or Thanksgiving.

I’m talking about average week-day meals. Maybe, on any given Wednesday evening, it’s chicken with the skin on, green beans and a Pepsi.

It’s here, when the family effortlessly gives in to the moment of shared ideas, disagreements or howls of laugher or even silence that the reconnection is made.

At the dinner table, no “member” needs to worry about what they’re saying or how to say it. Family members seldom have to bring the proverbial destructive emotions of shame or guilt, feelings that often play too big part in everyday life away from the table.

This is why social scientists call the family meal a kind of “vaccine,” protecting children from the societal trench of darkness and pain that can so easily entrap them.

Experts in adolescent development say that it’s our teenagers who most benefit from the investment of family meal.

Studies show:
*that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide,
*that the more they eat together, the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.
*the older the kids are, the more they need this protected time together, but the less likely they are to get it. (Maybe we parents think we’ve done our job. Or maybe it’s the damn technology, the cell phones, computers, iPods that is replacing the shared meal?)
*ethnic parents, often less educated, are more prone to insist on the family meal. It’s as if they want to fix what went wrong in their own lives. But you know what then happens? These kids are 40% more likely to get mainly A’s and B’s.

Breaking bread as a family is about civilizing our children, and teaching them their first life lessons regarding politeness and democracy. It’s not about food.

About five thousand years ago, an ancient Chinese King once said, “a society that does not know where it comes from, cannot know where it is going.”

Do you want to know where your family is going, because in essence, family is exactly that – a mini society.

Break bread together consistently and you’ll be that much likely not to become a family scattered to the wind.

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