Friday, September 18, 2009

Let's bring back the family dinner!

When my mom and her sisters were growing up, my grandmother always insisted they eat at least one meal a day all together. Since my grandfather often had business functions to attend in the evening, for them the family meal was breakfast. Not only did her own children benefit from this healthy, happy tradition, so did we of the next generation. Many of my happy memories of home take place around the dining table. Thanks, Mom and Pops, for working hard to put great food on the table, and even more important, for showing us that you really enjoyed your children's company, that you looked forward to us coming home for dinner, and were interested in everything we had to say.

Sitting down to supper together
Father Raymond J. de Souza, National Post
Published: Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's been a couple of years since I last wrote about "National Family Dinner Night." Tonight is the fifth annual occurrence of the venture launched by MacVoisin, proprietor of M&M Meat Shops, to encourage families to sit down and have dinner together. No TV, no cellphones, no text messaging, no BlackBerrys, no iPhones -- just family dinner. Food to eat and conversations to be had. You don't have to eat M&M products to have a family dinner, of course, but if you register your participation with M&M they make a contribution to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada. The family dinner promotion has contributed to the more than $18-million which M&M has raised for the charity.

I have returned to this subject more than once because I think the regular family dinner is a powerful support to family unity and the successful raising of children. Last week I wrote in this space about my own parents as an example of a successful immigrant family. Regular family dinner and family prayer were key parts of that. The old saying went that the family that prays together stays together. The family that doesn't eat together likely won't get a chance to pray together either.

It's easy enough to bang on about how things were better when life was simpler, so I was pleased to read in a Toronto newspaper this past weekend about recent studies that appear to link family dining to better brain development in teens.

Adolescence is a time of significant brain development and integration, especially for boys. Dr. Tomas Paus, a neuroscientist working in the Saguenay region of Quebec, has done brain scans and interviews with some 600 teenage volunteers. His studies have examined the impact on brain development of "positive youth development." He summarizes that in terms of five Cs: connectedness with friends and families, character, caring, competence and confidence. Dr. Paus' team thinks that family meals together can boost all five Cs and lead to better brain development, more successful teenage outcomes and fewer psychiatric problems.

It's always good to find experimental science confirming what common sense and traditional wisdom hold, if only because common sense is not all that common, and traditions of all kinds are weakening. You shouldn't need a neuroscientist to convince you to have dinner regularly with your kids, but if it helps, no harm is done.

Children today are in an unusual state. Fewer and fewer of them are ever allowed to do anything truly independent, like walk to school or take a bus across town with their friends. Their parents, motivated as parents are by the best of intentions, hover over them at all times. Few children have any extended periods of unsupervised play. Yet at the same time, studies tell us that parents and children spend remarkably little time actually talking to each other. The child often gets the worst of both worlds -- his parents are always around, but he doesn't actually converse with them.

The family dinner can correct something of that. Obviously Mom can't ask Junior about what he did during the day if she has been driving him everywhere, but the kitchen table can be a place where children are not so much supervised as they are encouraged to be contributing participants. The family dinner is a remarkably egalitarian institution; it permits the young ones to tell their stories to adults who listen, and teaches children (not without difficulties!) to listen to each other. The family dinner, presided over by cheerful but firm parents, also channels one of nature's primal urges -- the desire to eat -- into a social grace, complete with manners and courtesy.

Family dinner can also be a regular teacher of how everyone should contribute to the family. Even little children can help set the table, and older ones can take their turns doing the dishes, taking out the garbage or cleaning up the kitchen. With the range of easy-to-prepare meals available, teenagers can even help with the cooking, such as it is.

But talking about family dinner in terms of character development and brain chemistry is to put secondary things first. Family dinner, with parents and children (grandma too in our family's case), and friends on occasion, is for the happy family simple, inexpensive, wholesome, good fun. And what family could not use more of that? 


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