Friday, February 22, 2013

Is There A Secret To Having Happy Family Meals?

On The Leonard Lopate Show Bruce Feiler talks about The Secrets Of Happy Families. One of the things he discusses is the diificulties in those family meals so many of us insist on. He points out that research shows there's only 10 minutes of meaningful conversation during family meals. Obviously this is an average. And his conclusion is that, rather than wasting everybody's time reminding our kids to take their elbows off the table, we can just replace them with one meal during the weekends.

But I think that level of analysis seems somewhat superficial.
Why conclude that parents should scrap regular family meals just because the average family reportedly isn't accomplishing parent's preconceived notion of they were hoping to accomplish? Not to mention that it seems like quitting based on highly inconclusive and indirect information. (Is that the example parents want to be setting?) Wouldn't it be better for parents to look at their individual situation, and if necessary, strive to have more meaningful conversations at meal time?

And why is reinforcing manners not considered meaningful. This is an opportunity for parents to role model and teach their children how to behave during meals. Otherwise their children only have their peers to learn from, and parents are left to do their educating and disciplining when they're dining out with their children.

Last, but not least, what about role modeling family values? By insisting on that family meal, aren't parents sending a message that they, as parents, value their time to converse with their children, both hearing about their children's thoughts and experiences, and also sharing their experiences with their children? While it may seem like a stressful inconvenience at the moment, aren't these the steps that lay the foundation for their children's adulthood?

From my personal experience these are achievable goals, but it requires some work. Last summer I made a resolution to no longer use my phone during family meals - unless it was for some purpose that benefited the entire family, such as listening to music or a podcast, or looking something up related to our conversation. The catalyst for this change was considering that one day our kids would have phones of their own, and the need to role model our expected and desired behavior. Now I usually leave my phone to charge as soon as I get home from work, and it has made a huge improvement in our experience. We always ask our children how their day was. Inevitably the answers will be "fine" or "good" - at least to start. But we follow those up with pointed questions like:
• What are some things that you learned today?
• What was your favorite/least favorite part of the day?
• What did you do at recess, and who did you play with?
• How was music, art, etc. and what did you focus on?

I've also found that it is important for us to tell our children something about our day. Let them know that the world, even ours, isn't all about them. We tell them about our challenges, successes and failures, and ask them for their thoughts. Eventually our kids started occasionally asking us "how was your day?"

Bruce Feiler touches on a lot of other topics, such as punishments, the importance of knowing your family history, homework, conflict resolution, allowance, and sex-talks, and he gives some good advice. Give it a listen:

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