There was a picture in the newspaper recently of a small family group (dad, mom and child) snuggled together in the child’s bed with the father reading a bedtime story. The picture accompanied an article about the rewards of being a stay-at-home dad. Having been in that position with my two boys several years ago, the picture brought back some very fond memories of some my favorite parental experiences. I still remember all the stories we read together every time I walk into our playroom as our book shelves are still over-flowing with all of the great books we read over and over and over again. From the “Little Engine that Could” to “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel”, from Arthur to the Berenstain Bears… and then on to Harry Potter and the wonderful “Series of Unfortunate Events”, we truly loved the experience of reading and telling stories together as a family. I started to wonder what takes the place of those experiences as our kids grow?
I might have longed for those days that seemed to be device-free when all of our attention was on each other rather than that little pocket-sized brain leech (though I, too, have to admit that I love my iWhatever). However, it occurs to me that we have that time that is much like the hours we spent reading and telling all of those wonderful stories…. It’s our family meal-time. Rather than snuggled under blankets, we are around a table. Often the stories are told through mouthfuls of food. Sometimes the tales are admonitory, tedious, hilarious, angry, tearful, contentious, …. All the ingredients of a good story. Some stories, like many of the best books we shared, are told over and over again. Best of all, this time is device-free and, except for the food, attention is usually front and center. Family mealtime gives us the opportunity to tell each other the stories of our day. We share observations, experiences, difficulties, jokes, riddles and the all-important daily schedule! The communication and bonding that happens during the family meal is a great way to connect in much the same way we did over the nightly bedtime story.
Another activity that has taken the place of the nightly story time is the family card game…. Usually it’s cards, though we are also given to shaming each other at ping-pong or badminton. There are a number of wonderful things that have happened over the past couple of years that have made these family game nights a true joy. Though the three males in the family are highly competitive, winning or losing has taken a back seat to fun… and we DO have a blast, with games often deteriorating into crippling spasm of hilarity. Also, the games we play often become part of the stories we tell each other over the family meal.
Of course, with two high school students in the house it’s impossible to gather for a family meal every evening. There are many events and extra-curricular activities that get in the way of the regularly scheduled dinner… but those activities are good things AND they just add to the story-telling.
I’ve recently come across an organization called The Family Dinner Project (http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/). The Family Dinner Project is a growing movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter. The Family Dinner Project is a nonprofit organization currently operating from the offices of Project Zero at Harvard University.
Project Zero is an educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education composed of multiple, independently-sponsored research projects. Since 1967, Project Zero has examined the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Today, Project Zero’s work includes investigations into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, ethics, and other essential aspects of human learning. Their mission is to understand and enhance high-level thinking and learning across disciplines and cultures and in a range of contexts, including schools, businesses, museums, and digital environments.
Over the past 15 years, research has shown what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. The Family Dinner Project also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.
Now, through this movement, families will come together to share their experiences and insights to help each other realize the benefits of family dinners. Together, they’ll figure out the resources needed – like tips for setting dinnertime goals, overcoming obstacles such as conflicting schedules and engaging everyone in meaningful conversation – to improve the frequency and quality of their mealtime interaction.
Join the movement. Join your family for dinner. Share a meal and share some conversation. The memories and lessons learned and shared will last a lifetime.