So many experts focus on the significance of the family dinner…taking time to eat together instills healthy eating habits. Taking time together to talk helps connect and ground your children. Taking time to eat together places a value on family time. Entire businesses have been built on this notion of helping families eat dinner together (check out The Six O’Clock Scramble).
I have always known family dinners are such an important tool to help build a family. Nearly every night when I was growing up, we ate dinner together as a family. It was a tradition I worked hard to continue. Unfortunately, I noticed that in recent months, in all of our rushing/hurrying, our dinner time had become…chaotic. It was a slippery slope…first I started to make quick food for the children and decided I would “eat later” when I knew what I wanted to eat. At the same time, my husband started to get home from work a bit later. This summer, I struggled with child care solutions and managing my work load, so I found myself using dinner time as a “quick minute” to hammer out some last-minute work every night. To keep my children occupied, I started to let them turn on the television during dinner. Slowly but surely, I noticed that many nights, I would sit nearby on the couch and work while they ate dinner.
Initially, I did not give much thought to this change. As summer drew to a close, I began to notice that my children were not eating well. Instead, they were distracted during dinner, letting their food sit because they became engrossed in television, and I wasn’t spending much time interacting with them. Because we were together so much of the day, I felt like I knew what they were doing, and did not need to ask. Towards the end of August, I realized that my husband was completely lost – he had no idea what was happening in any of our lives. It was then it occurred to me that our new pattern had cut off the flow of communication in our house.
Immediately, I decided it was time for a change…we would return to our roots and safeguard our family dinner. What better time for new rules than a new school year, right? A few days before school started, I announced our new dinner policy. No more television, technology, or phones. Everyone sits down together. Each of us takes a turn to speak.
Night one, there was protesting. My son screamed about watching a movie, and I calmly responded by telling him that screaming would just cost him television for the rest of the night and the next night. He quickly quieted down, and explained he did not like stopping the movie. I acknowledged that it was a change, but I promised him we would have a nice dinner, and that he would get a chance to finish his movie another time. He relented and joined the table…begrudgingly.
I started out a bit stuck…it was time for conversation! And NO ONE WAS TALKING. I realized I was babbling. I tried to ask “how was your day?” and my son said “good,” my husband said “fine” and my daughter grinned at me. Now, the panic began to set in as I wondered how to make the dinner work. As I began to question my decision, my son scarfed down his food and said “Can I go watch the movie NOW, Mom?” Just then, it dawned on me! Instead of the open-ended “tell me about your day,” I told my son that he could watch his movie after everyone had a turn to share 3 good things about their day.
Much to my amazement, it worked! My son told me his 3 things, and I asked follow-up questions. We had conversation! Everyone was excited and engaged! My daughter took her turn, too, and something else amazing happened. She really shared specific information instead of saying “I forgot.” I realized that she is often over-shadowed by her talkative older brother. Even my husband shared about his day.
Every night since then, we have been having our family dinner. No technology. No television. Share 3 things. My children respect the rules because we have been consistent. Now they pause the technology, or decline to start a movie when I tell them we will be having dinner shortly. Every night, we each take a turn sharing. A different person speaks first every night, and we all have the chance to ask questions.
So far, my little experiment is working well. My children are more focused in the evenings and have been eating more at dinner. We wrap up efficiently instead of wasting time trying to “make” them eat (also known as begging/threatening/bribing). Most of all, we laugh. Conversation at the table often sparks an after-dinner activity. Tonight, my son shared that he loved learning to play chess at his after-school enrichment. He asked my husband if he had a chess board in the house. Together they searched, and my husband found an old wooden chess board he made by hand one summer in camp in woodworking. After dinner, they spent an hour setting up the chess board, discussing the rules, and teaching my daughter. Not a piece of technology in sight.
What is family dinner in your house? I would love to hear more about your traditions!