I’m a firm believer – along with many others – that children gain much from having the family gather together regularly to sit down for family meals. It’s a topic that’s been seriously researched and covered by the mainstream media and multiple family advocate organizations. Both my wife and I remember growing up in families that had family meals that could last for two hours as we hashed around school, family and societal issues. But while everybody discusses the benefits and joys, what about the process that it takes to get to those benefits?
Most of our memories are from a time that we can reliably and consistently recall, which is typically from the primary grades onwards. We have no recollection of the years before then and I doubt that many of us ask our own parents about those years. The result is a repetitive cycle of frustration as each generation doubts and is forced to rediscover what their preceding generations learned.
So what have I had to (re)learn about family meal times?
- Understand that family meals are learned events since children have to be taught almost everything. Those memories of family meals are the culmination of considerable effort and work to get you to the point that you knew rudimentary table manners, knew how to sit for more than a few minutes, and could carry a reasonable conversation.
- There are far more activities available to children today than when we were children, so our childhood family mealtimes weren’t competing against sports, dance and theatre practices. When we were teens perhaps, but not at as young an age as today.
- Preparing a family meal requires some forethought when you have two or more small children. It then becomes a function of when parents are able to make it home from work as well as the body clocks of infants and toddlers, which aren’t always the same. On more than one occasion, the family meal didn’t happen because one or more children was simply too tired to hold off until waiting until their mother made it home. In that case, I had to eat with the child(ren).
- Most small children don’t have an innate ability to sit still, let alone carry a conversation. Because of this, some of our meals – and conversation – simply focused on the rudiments of eating: working with the utensils and learning basic table manners.
- It’s better to cut mealtime shorter if an adult’s frustration level is growing so that the kids don’t come to view family meals as something to be endured or feared. Kids are perfectly capable of torquing you – by accident or on purpose – into all manner of unique and entertaining shapes. It’s sometimes the old "how far can I push him?" game.
- As they grow, conversations have to be kid-friendly. Many of our family discussions stem from just asking what they did in school that day. Don’t expect younger kids to be able to engage in wide-ranging conversations since all of them think that Plato comes in a small yellow can available in the toy section at Walmart. The discussions will change as the kids grow and are exposed to more.
- No child should eat alone. Even when we’re in family mealtime hell with competing activities – Eldest has soccer, Middle has dance and Youngest has baseball – I try to take the opportunity to sit with them, singly or any combination. The conversation might be minimal but the opportunity to talk has to be present.
- Family meals are a family event, which means that while the parents have to bend to the necessities of childhood, the kids should likewise be expected to rise to our level as they grow. On more than one occasion, we’ve made one or more kids sit back down and at least listen as another child or adult talks about their day. The child doesn’t have to like it but the message has to be clear that this is a shared event. And there are topics that simply have to be discussed for the child to learn.
The point to remember is that like everything else with raising children, this is a process and a marathon. When the children are very young, there may not even appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel. But they will learn and there will be an increasing number of meals that you can plug into your memory banks for future reference.
And still, there will be meals that you won’t.