Another evening has come and gone. I arrived home after my wife and son had finished dinner and ate directly from the pan while standing at the stove top. As an educator and a parent, I know that one of the most powerful things families can do is eat together; yet I seem to have missed another family meal. I say this neither to complain nor elicit pity, but because I know that I am not alone in this dilemma. Over the years, many parents have expressed their frustration about wanting to do the right thing in terms of family dinners, but they find it difficult to do so in this day and age of 24/7 work. Similarly, many parents have found a way to dine with their children, while bemoaning the fact that the meal has been slapped together with little forethought or attention. But it can be disheartening if one does work hard to make a family dinner—only to have the children rush through it because they have homework, want to socialize with their friends, or the siren Netflix seems to be calling them.
So, what’s a well-intentioned and loving parent to do? Fortunately, there are people like Lisa Damour—a psychologist, author, teacher, speaker, and consultant from Cleveland, Ohio—who have written on this topic. In a recent piece in The New York Times, “Where’s the Magic in Family Dinner?,” Damour provides a compelling rationale for having evening meals together by relating it to the concept of authoritative parenting.
As Damour explains, “In the early 1970s, the psychologist Diana Baumrind identified two essential components of parenting: structure and warmth. Authoritative parents bring both. They hold high standards for behavior while being lovingly engaged with their children. Decades of research have documented that teenagers raised by authoritative parents are the ones most likely to do well at school, enjoy abundant psychological health and stay out of trouble. In contrast, adolescents with authoritarian parents (high on structure, low on warmth), indulgent parents (low on structure, high on warmth) or neglectful parents (low on both) don’t fare nearly so well.”
Family dinner provides an opportunity for parents to convey the priority they place on their relationship with their children. Devoting time to dinner means overriding other pressing concerns, such as work; our children see this and, even if they don’t say so, they appreciate it. In addition, the work that goes into preparing dinner, eating together, and cleaning up allows parents to demonstrate the necessity for structure in a household, and the importance of our children playing a role in providing that structure.
Toward the end of the article, Damour reminds us that the contents of the meal may be less important than the fact that at a family dinner, we’re all giving up our most precious resource—time—to be together, and there’s power in the symbolic value of that. In addition, it may not always be possible to have dinner together, so maybe breakfast is an alternative. I can envision the eyes rolling around this notion, ”Do you know what the mornings are like in our house??” However, it’s good to know that there are some options besides an evening meal; it’s really more about being together, and the conversation that ensues, than it is about the main course and the side dishes.
Whatever your family’s eating ritual, I wish you a “bon appétit.” “Mangia! Mangia!”