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Jewish World Review
Sept. 22, 2005
/ 18 Elul, 5765
Want good kids?
Social science is finally catching up to the Sages
One of my clinical supervisors told me, "Most family dynamics are very hard to change. But that's OK, because if you get the families you work with to just eat dinner together regularly, this by itself will do more good than anything else and you will have helped immensely."
I had not expected family meals to be the one thing that makes such a difference and so I began to pay attention to the research on the subject. The leading advocate for regular family dinners is the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. They are so enthusiastic that they created National Family Day A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children. This year National Family Day will be September 26. (Visit their web site, www.casafamilyday.org, for recipes and other information for parents.)
Indeed, the results of their large study were stunning. What is the outcome of having dinner with your children regularly? Your child will be 32% likelier never to smoke cigarettes, 45% likelier never to abuse alcohol, and have a 50% less risk of substance abuse. Those are truly remarkable advantages, aren't they? The problem is that not many people are doing what it takes. A national poll found that less than one-third of families eat dinner together regularly. And then over half of those have the TV on. This means that less than 16% of families are eating dinner together regularly and talking to each other.
Moreover, who has the time? A University of Michigan study found that between 1981 and 1997 there was a 25% drop in play time for kids and their unstructured outdoor activities dropped by 50%. Where did their time go? Studying increased by 50 % while time spent in structured sports more than doubled. Yet what was the study's conclusion? More meal time at home was the single strongest factor in better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems in all ages of children. Having regular meals with their families was a more powerful predictor of success and happiness than time spent in school, studying, church or synagogue, playing sports, or art activities. Read that sentence again: if you want success for your child, eat dinner together most days of the week, and turn the TV off.
I know you're frazzled just thinking about it. It is a truly monumental effort: there are the logistics of getting everyone at the same place at the same time. There is the cooking and the shopping and all the preparation and the cleanup. And while everyone imagines enlightened and meaningful conversations between parents and kids, in reality, you know that you are more likely to encounter this:
Child: "Tell him to stop looking at me."
Parent: "Ok, stop looking at him. Did you have a nice day today? And now you stop hitting your sister."
Or, with teenagers:
Parent: "How was school today?
Parent: "Did anything interesting happen?"
Don't be disheartened, all of these things can be overcome. The first thing is, commit to being home by dinnertime five days a week. If there are more than three reasons why you can't be there that often, start with two days a week, or even one. But decide on a timetable for when you will rearrange your schedule to add days because the research shows that occasional dinners produce much weaker results. There are myriad reasons why being home for dinner is impractical, but it may be the one decision with the most far-reaching consequences in the lives of the people you are most intimate with and care most about.
Fortunately, we Jews have a template for family dinners, Friday evening. First, Shabbes (Sabbath) dinner teaches commitment. Every week a Jew is expected to be with the family no matter what. The more inviolate Shabbes dinner is, the more our kids begin to believe that we really are serious about our spiritual values. This is important: while a lot of the one-word answers and whining are just kid behavior and adolescent hormones, your kids are also testing you to see how interested and committed you really are. So that's lesson number one: no excuses. Just as you have to be there for Shabbes dinner, your family needs you to be there for all family dinners.
Lesson number two is the importance of rituals. What makes Shabbes dinner special is in large part getting dressed up, lighting the candles, making Kiddush over the wine, placing two loaves of challah on the table, and singing songs that are only sung Friday night. Rituals connect us to each other as we all have a specific part to play in making the evening a success. Learn from Shabbes and fill weekday meals with your own family rituals.
A family ritual is doing something repeatedly and giving it meaning and significance. Here's are examples: each evening everyone has to say something, even the quiet one who says only, "Hi, I'm here." After a while, a further ritual can develop around this where everyone says hello back in unison and then laughs. The important thing is the meaning underlying this little exchange. Or, make Wednesday's dinner humor night, where everyone brings in a joke. You might place a special trophy in front of the king or queen of humor for the rest of the meal, or there might be a tradition of everyone groaning at the worst joke. These family rituals are not profound, but they can be very meaningful.
The third lesson Shabbes dinner teaches us is how to have conversations. On Shabbes we talk about the weekly Torah portion, upcoming holidays, or other spiritual subjects because we know we are supposed to talk about meaningful matters. Bring the spirit of Shabbes into the week. Try to have one creative and unusual topic in mind each meal and you can repeat topics. Here are examples of questions to ask each person: What's one thing you would like to happen tomorrow? Who is the one person from all of history you would like to meet? What question would you like to ask G-d most?
Monday could become kindness night, wherein each person discusses an act of kindness someone did for them in the last few days. Or, who is someone outside of the family they are having a hard time feeling kindness toward? What would they like to do about it? Kindness night is also a good time to divvy up the chores for the week, especially dinner tasks.
Finally, Shabbes dinner teaches us how to make a meal fun in a holy way. The food is special and tasty so everyone can be in a good mood and ready to think about meaningful things. Bring that into the week. Weekday dinners do not need to be battles. There are better times to train your kids not to be picky eaters family dinners are the worst times to threaten no dessert unless they finish their vegetables. Agree to put vitamins next to their plates if you are truly concerned and let them and you have an enjoyable meal.
So there it is. There are secular reasons to make the effort to establish regular family dinners in your home and there are spiritual reasons. They are all pressing and rewarding. Make it special and put a tablecloth on the table.
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JWR contributor Mordechai Mishory is a Denver-based counselor. To comment, please click here.
© 2005, Mordechai Mishory