I moved heaven and earth to get my family to the dinner table all together on an almost nightly basis, believing that in parenting terms, this was the Holy Grail. Turns out, I was wrong.
Google "Family Dinner" and you will find a raft of articles claiming that if you eat dinner with your kids they will be less likely to use drugs or get into trouble and more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. Other studies suggest regular family meals are associated with improved academic performance.
I had read these articles and heard this received wisdom and never questioned why the 20 minutes that it takes three teenage boys to wolf down a meal and jump up in time to be scolded for not clearing their place could have such a profound impact on my kids later lives. It turns out that it doesn't.
Web MD suggests that family dinners reduce stress and tension at home. But given how much I have stressed about getting us all the to table at the same time, I am pretty sure that this could not be true either.
On Fast Company, Laura Vanderkam family breakfast as an alternative. After all, we are all there in the morning and everyone has to eat, she argues. In my house, only three of the five of us eat in the morning, one leaves before the others awake and one eats in the car... not really a solution. But was a solution needed?
Two professors, Ann Meier and Kelly Musick, took a long deep look at the evidence for family dinners. They noted that academic achievement and positive teenage behaviors have been associated with families that ate together in a large number of studies. Yet when they delved into the data and stripped out the quality of family relationships, the degree to which parents monitored their kids, how they spent their time together and the availability of financial resources, suddenly, the story changed. The researchers noted that, "We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency." It was family connections, not meals, that mattered.
We had family dinner almost every night by eating at ever-changing times and eeking out whatever overlap existed in five people's schedules. Dinner at our house could be at 5:15 or at 8:45, with huge complaints all around about not being hungry yet or being starved by a mother who is waiting for a father to return. Bruce Feiler, who has studied what makes happy families happy, suggests that there is only about 10 minutes of valuable time at a family meal, which, frankly, made me feeling much better about my family.
Some studies suggested that kids who eat with their families developed healthier eating habits. But here, too, I will take issue. Do we really sit around the table discussing vitamins and calories or is it just because when we don't cook for our families we grab a pizza or some other insidious take-out and serve that as dinner? If I served my kids healthy food and stocked my house with it, wouldn't that be enough? Do they really need to see me eating it with them?
What did work?
Long dinners spent around a restaurant table on vacation or just in our neighborhood. Meals that lasted up to two hours with five relaxed family members truly engaged in a conversation about our day, our world or ourselves. No texting, no nagging, no dirty kitchen and dishes, only a stain being let to set on someone's clothing... one happy family.
Long car journeys with a trapped teen. The magic of not having to look a teenager in the face can open up a conversation in ways unimaginable. Research from Columbia showed that car rides were where teens spilled, talking earnestly to parents. This squares with my experience.
Long session over a Monopoly Board. Yes the loser got testy and, yes, I was bored senseless, but all of us seated in one place for a multi-hour period of time is how real conversation happens.
Husband and I took turns taking one kid (we have three) away for a night to a hotel in a nearby city. We made it a point to undertake the activities that child was interested in and eat foods that that child preferred. We stayed up late chatting in the hotel room. We only did this every year or two, but each kid can recall their overnights alone with a parent in minute detail and so can we.
Movie nights for five in the livingroom. Out of town soccer tournaments with just one son. The five of us in a motel room with two double beds, one roll away and a small TV with poor reception. Baring outside entertainment, any family will talk.
Feiler's bottom line: Family dinner is less about the "dinner" and more about the "family." Two decades of parenting experience bears this out. Making myself crazy and making my sons hungry as they waited for their father or a sibling was not what brought my family together. It was time we spent together, at a beach, in our hurricane-darkened living room, or just sitting in our children's bedroom before they fell asleep that made the difference. It was the long, heartfelt, or simply funny, conversations with five people deeply connected that is the glue that holds us together and dinner had nothing to do with it.