Blame it on digital media, mobile devices, limitless cable channels or just busier lives, but family meal time is quickly becoming a quaint relic, a scene out of Leave it to Beaver or a Norman Rockwell painting. “Children, tweens and teens may not know it, but they crave family time,” says Carina L. Barker, MSW, LICSW, psychotherapist with St. Luke’s Mental Health Services. “With so many distractions competing for our time and attention, we’ve abandoned ‘intentional communication.’”
Meal time matters
A study released by Columbia University speaks to the importance of family meal times. The study shows that teens who regularly eat family dinners get higher grades, are less likely to have substance abuse issues and need less validation from their peers.
A vocal proponent of family meals, Barker says that spending 15-20 minutes focusing on each other is far more important than what’s on the plate, what time you eat or where you gather. What matters, she says, is creating a ritual or tradition around your family meal time, starting with the expectation that cell phones, TVs and laptops are turned off before the meal begins. “Children need to feel that their parents are genuinely interested in their lives,” she says. “And electronic distractions prevent us from really tuning in to each other.” Barker also coaches parents to leave any serious discussion of chores, homework or poor grades till after dinner. The point, she says, is to create an enjoyable, positive environment that’s free of friction, nagging and judgment.
Barker offers the following ideas for creating family rituals:
- Light candles
- Start the meal by having everyone say what they’re grateful for
- Introduce icebreakers or random, age-appropriate questions (“If you could be invisible, where would you go?” or “If you worked at the zoo, what animal would you want to take care of?”)
- Share the highs and lows of the day (the Obama family calls them “Roses and Thorns”)
- Rotate the role of “host” so everyone has a chance to pick the menu and the icebreaker
- Use different sound effects, music or instruments as the dinner “bell”
No time like the present
“Intentional communication helps us connect with each other, ourselves and our values,” Barker says. Although teens may initially grumble at the idea of a “text-free” zone, she strongly encourages parents to insist on family time, no matter how old your kids are. “It’s never too late to start creating your own family meal-time rituals.”