“What if I told you that there was a magic bullet–something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children’s chances of success in the world, your family’s health, our values as a society? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce and within the reach of pretty much anyone?”
Miriam Weinstein begins her book The Surprising Power of Family Meals(Steer Forth Press, 2005) with those two questions and then suggests that the “magic bullet” missed by so many families is as simple as a shared meal.
Weinstein, a filmmaker and journalist, has collected an impressive body of data in order to make her case that the institution of the shared family meal represents something of vital importance for human life. Even as the family meal is fast disappearing, Weinstein has issued an eloquent call for its recovery.
As she explains, the research indicates that a shared family meal leads to the strengthening of family bonds, the deepening of relationships, and higher levels of satisfaction and effectiveness among family members. According to Weinstein, the research shows how eating ordinary, average, everyday supper with your family is strongly linked to lower incidents of bad outcomes such as teenage drug and alcohol use, and to good qualities like emotional stability. It correlates with kindergartners being better prepared to learn to read. (It even trumps getting read to.) Regular family supper helps keep kids out of hospitals. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports your staying more connected to your extended family, your ethnic heritage, your community of faith.
That’s not all. Weinstein also argues that the regular rhythm of family meals will “help children and families to be more resilient, reacting positively to those curves and arrows that life throws our way. It will certainly keep you better nourished. The things we are likely to discuss at the supper table will anchor our children more firmly in the world. Of course eating together teaches manners both trivial and momentous, putting you in touch with the deeper springs of human relations.”
Weinstein makes a compelling case, and her book is sure to prompt many parents to think about what has been lost as the family meal has been eclipsed by other activities and by the cult of individualism that has undermined our communal life.
At the same time, Weinstein understands the complexities of modern family life. She does point back to a golden age of shared family meals in the past, but she acknowledges that families now find themselves drawn in too many directions all at once. In once sense this is the larger problem, and the eclipse of the family meal is only a symptom of what has gone badly wrong.
In reality, families did not merely decide to stop eating together. The rhythms, complexities, and chaos of today’s lifestyles simply produced a reality that made shared family meals almost impossible.
Any number of factors play a role in marginalizing shared family meals, but Weinstein points to some of the most easily identifiable among these factors. For parents, the issue is often work schedules and fatigue. As millions of mothers have moved into the workforce, the elaborate ritual of the nightly family meal has often given way to the urgency of getting family members fed as a necessity of human need–rather than as the focus of a shared event. For adults, evening hours are often filled with extended work, social commitments, and the practicalities of keeping life together in the midst of frenzied lifestyles.
For kids, the enemies of shared family meals include burdensome homework and extracurricular activities–especially teen sports. A study conducted by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center indicates that between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time that children spent watching other people play sports rose five-fold. This study doesn’t even take into account all the time children now spend playing sports themselves.
“We are living in a time of intense individualism in a culture defined by competition and consumption,” Weinstein observes. “It has become an article of faith that a parent’s job is to provide every child with every opportunity to find his particular talent, interest, or bliss. But somehow, as we drive-thru our lives, we have given up something so modest, so humble, so available, that we never realized its worth. Family supper can be a bulwark against the pressures we all face everyday.”
The shared family meal fulfills more than the function of feeding the family. In the intimate sphere of the shared meal, children learned how to engage in conversation and how to enjoy the experience of hearing others talk. The family meal became the context for sharing the events of the day, for dealing with family crises, and for building the bonds that facilitate family intimacy. Parents taught children how to think about the issues of the day by making these a part of the conversation that was shared around the table. Gentle admonitions and direct correction taught children how to respect others while eating, instilling an understanding of the basic habits that encourage mutual respect and make civilization possible.
Weinstein may hold what some view to be a rather romantic understanding of the shared meal, but she defends her argument by asking readers to remember the family meal times of their own childhood. For most of today’s adults, there is still at least some memory of shared family meals and the experience of respecting meal times as a priority.
Something even more fundamental is at work here. Throughout human history, meals have been important opportunities for the establishment and maintenance of relationships–for the forging of bonds and the deepening of intimacies. The shared family meal–especially the shared supper–is one of the few opportunities when parents and children look each other in the face for a sustained amount of time and have the kind of contact, matched with conversation, that they desperately need.
On this point, Weinstein marshals a considerable body of empirical data. In 1996, the national Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University [CASA] ran a study intending to see what differentiated kids involved in substance abuse from those who were not. CASA has repeated the surveys every year since. “And every year, eating supper together regularly as a family tops the list of variables that are within our control,” Weinstein reports. “Kids who eat more family dinners do better than those who eat a few. Kids who share a few dinners weekly do better than the ones who have none at all.”
The 2003 survey indicated that children and teens who share dinner with their families five or more nights a week were 32% likelier never to have tried cigarettes, 45% likelier to have never tried alcohol, and 24% likelier never to have smoked marijuana. “Those who eat lots of family dinners are almost twice as likely to get A’s in school as their classmates who rarely eat as a family,” Weinstein adds.
These days, many families find themselves eating in the car, scattered throughout the house, or facing a television set. Weinstein interviewed Witold Rybcezynsky, author of some of the most influential recent books on architecture and community, and asked him about the most beneficial setting for a shared family meal. In a fascinating response, Rybcezynsky largely ignored the question of place, but pointed to a more urgent issue. “We eat facing each other,” he insisted. “It’s the facing each other that’s important.”
Writing from a Jewish perspective, Weinstein understands the importance of ritual and structure in the lives of families. She is undoubtedly correct that the shared family meal becomes a barometer of family life and priorities. Her encouragement to restructure family schedules and priorities in order to recover the shared family meal is eloquently and convincingly sustained by her argument.
Christians recognize an even deeper dimension of what Weinstein observes. Christian parents should understand that the shared family meal takes on an increased significance given our responsibility to teach our children faithfully, to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and to inculcate in them a respect for family life that focuses ultimately on the glory of God.
Parents in this generation now face the opportunity–and the responsibility–of recovering shared family meals as a way of recovering sanity and security in family life. Oddly enough, recovering the priority of a shared family meal represents something of a revolutionary stance against the individualism and immediacy of the larger culture. Now is the time to start a revolution–and determining to share family supper together is an important place to start.