Four or five nights a week, my husband and I sit down to dinner with our two sons, Will, 12, and Tim, 9. At this age, the boys are good company, and I know they enjoy these meals as much as Rick and I do, because they complain when we miss a few nights. But family dinner wasn't always like this. In fact, when the children were small, we called it "dining hell."
We endured whining, spilling, and endless struggles to keep restless toddlers at the table long enough to eat something. We weathered complaints about unacceptable food and whose leg was kicking whose chair.
But as bad as it often was, I always knew it was worth it. In fact, experts confirm that sharing regular meals as a family brings a banquet of benefits. Ben Silliman, Ph.D., a family-life specialist at the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Extension Service, says, "Children of all ages need to know that parents are accessible to them. One of the big messages that family dinner sends is 'You're important enough for me to spend this time with you.' "
"Mealtime is often the only time in the whole day when everybody's in the same room having a conversation," says William Doherty, Ph.D., author of The Intentional Family (Addison Wesley Longman, 1997), "so it's where the family's culture gets created." Even more impressive is the research suggesting that regular family meals can sharpen a child's intellect. Diane Beals, Ed.D., of the University of Tulsa, and Patton Tabors, Ed.D., of Harvard, studied 80 preschoolers and found that mealtime conversation built vocabulary even more effectively than listening to stories or reading aloud. And because gathering for a family meal is an inherently communal exercise, it naturally gives rise to basic courtesies, like saying "Please" and "Thank you," and keeping your mouth (mostly) shut when you chew.
Indeed, the phrase "family dinner" has become almost a metaphor for a commitment to family -- a commitment strong enough to survive the considerable odds against it. After all, in order to eat together, every family member must make it a priority: No band practice, no TV show, no late commute can interfere. Someone -- usually an exhausted soul who's already put in a long day -- must get the food on the table, and someone must clean up. Everyone must eat -- more or less -- the same thing. And everyone must behave in a way that's not going to horrify, or annoy, the other diners.
Getting all these variables to work at the same time can be so difficult that many families just give up. They believe that family dinner is a good idea -- they simply lack the stamina to pull it off. And then they feel guilty.
Yet the guilt and the giving up are as unnecessary as the linen tablecloth that graced your grandmother's table. The New Family Dinner is a flexible tradition that can be accomplished in myriad ways. The first step is getting rid of your preconceptions.