FROM THE NYU CHILD STUDY CENTER: ASK THE EXPERT
Family Meals—A Time to Reconnect
With parents and kids going off in different directions, it’s getting harder and harder to fit in family time. Kids are spending more time in afterschool activities, and parents are working longer hours. In the past 20 years, while structured activity time has doubled, unstructured time is down 50%. There’s a similar decline in family time for going on trips, going to family celebrations, and for the ordinary togetherness of talking to each other during mealtime. Despite all their distractions, numerous polls have shown that teens want more, not less, time with their parents and value their parents’ opinions. A report issued by CASA (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) found that teens that have two or fewer family dinners per week are twice as likely to smoke daily and to get drunk monthly compared to teens who have family dinners five times per week.
Family meals are one way to promote connectedness, and although it may take more planning, they can be built into family schedules. Family meal times come with a number of benefits, such as:
Better nutrition. Children who eat with their families are less likely to snack on unhealthy foods and more likely to eat healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Studies have shown that when family meals are prioritized, structured, and positive in atmosphere, fewer weight control problems and disordered eating patterns were observed.
The pleasure of spending non-pressured time together, which is not focused solely on academic, sports, or any other kind of achievement. Kids need to know they have access to an adult who listens.
A safe place where everyone can talk about their day, listen to each other, and try out ideas. Kids learn valuable social skills – taking turns, listening to others, and manners. Meal time is not only about food; it’s a time when family stories and jokes are told, when a sense of family values and rituals is instilled. Family meals can serve also as an emotional clearing-house and support system when someone’s down, excited, angry, or in a quandary.
The following are some tips on making family meals special:
Start working together before meal time and continue afterward. Have kids help in preparations and in clearing and cleanup, not as a chore but as part of a group effort. Their participation makes them feel valued and respected.
Avoid criticism, and passing judgment. Meal time is not a time for complaints or for too many questions.
Specific, non-judgmental remarks or questions can get kids involved in conversation.
Parents too can share something interesting about their day. When parents talk about their experiences, they’re providing models of behavior and sharing of values.
Family meals don’t always have to be in the same place or at the same time; lunch or brunch or picnics work just as well.
At the risk of sounding like a technophobe, this is a time to shut off/ignore telephones, text messages, and blackberries. These messages will be available later, the meal time with your kids won’t.
Find time other than meals to be together. Even small moments in the course of a day—such as before bedtime, sharing reactions to a television program, shopping together—can encourage conversation.
Mealtime is only one way for families to stay connected. Know what’s going on in your child’s life. Be involved in his/her school, sports, and/or other activities. Know your kid’s friends and their teachers. Go to games and other events to show support and pride. Sharing experiences provides opportunities to talk about successes, disappointments, and alternative ways of solving problems.
In addition to pleasure and emotional support, staying connected pays off in other significant ways. Research has shown that parent involvement is a protective factor against adolescent tobacco use, depression, eating disorders, academic achievement, and other problems. By staying connected with their children and teenagers, parents can be a source of support, create a climate for discussing tough issues, and serve as role models for responsible and empathetic behavior.
My youngest (of five) is off to college this fall and while my kids grumbled many a time that meals seemed to last forever, they all now agree that it was the most valuable part of their day. Try and make it part of your family’s day.
This monthly column provides educators, parents, and families with important information about child and adolescent mental health issues. Please submit questions for ASK THE EXPERT to Glenn S. Hirsch, M.D., Medical Director at the NYU Child Study Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the NYU Child Study Center, visit www.AboutOurKids.org or call (212) 263-6622.