The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Family Meal

Capitalize on your opportunities to commune with others.

A meal is about civilizing children. It's about teaching them to be a member of their culture. —Robin Fox

I recently prepared a lecture on parenting from a positive psychology perspective. Although psychologists have had much to say about parenting, often the focus has been on eliminating undesirable actions on the part of kids, like talking back, tantrums, and tattling. These behaviors are of course annoying, but what about encouraging desirable actions? A depressed child after all seems well-behaved, if by that we mean one who causes no hassles, at least in the short run. But parents want their children to be more than moribund. They want them to be happy and socially engaged, animated and motivated, accomplished and of course kind and decent. What does psychology have to say about the positive in children?

One of the points I usually make about positive parenting concerns quality time versus quantity time. I applaud the idea of quality time, which means that parents should give their undivided attention to children when with them. But if quality time consists of but a few minutes per day, I become skeptical of its benefits. Time after all is a quantity, and the more time spent with one's child, the better, or so I assume.

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That said, I realize that my advice to spend quantity time with one's kids is a bit glib given the real world and its demands. (I am not a parent, so it easy for me to be glib when dispensing such advice.) So, in my recent lecture, I tried to get real. I did so by thinking about the things that adults already do and how these activities could be recrafted to entail high quality and high quantity time with their children. Most adults spend a great deal of time per day sleeping or working (presumably not at the same time), and these activities do not lend themselves to child involvement.

But adults also spend a fair amount of time per day eating. And kids eat as well. So shared meals provide an excellent opportunity for good parenting—i.e., spending quality time and quantity time with one's children.

As I researched shared meals, I came across a fascinating survey about families in the contemporary United States that eat together and those that do not (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2011). Here are some of the findings.

First, the bad news. Perhaps as many as 40-50% of American families eat together no more than a few times per week, and some never do. Indeed, it is estimated that 20% of meals in the contemporary US are consumed in cars. Even among families eating together, 75% have meals that last less than 30 minutes, and many family meals take place in front of the television set.

Now, the good news. In families that frequently eat together, the children benefit in innumerable ways. They are happier and healthier, perhaps because they eat more nutritious meals. They get better grades. They are less likely to smoke, drink, or use other drugs. They have better relationships with their parents and with their siblings. Children, even teenagers, who infrequently eat with their families actually want to do so more often. They cite "catching up with the family" as the major reason. Wow.

 

Is it the meal per se that is magic? No and yes. Certainly, having frequent family meals is a marker of other beneficial characteristics of the family, so more is afoot than just the shared meal. But I also think that the meals matter as well, because they reflect and allow quality time and quantity time spent with children.

It may be tempting to dismiss the family meal as a quaint holdover from the 1950s of Norman Rockwell and the Cleaver family. Not so fast. These research results, even though they are correlational in nature, may have important implications for today's family.

Increase the number of family meals you share. Turn off the television. Catch up with one another. Linger at the dinner table. None of this can hurt. And I suspect it will help your kids be better people.

Most parents would say that their children's well-being is a priority. So why do parents live their lives in ways that undercut it, like being too busy themselves for shared meals or over-scheduling their kids so that shared meals cannot occur?

By the way, although the survey I have described focused on the benefits of family meals for children, I would bet that the adults benefit as well.

I do not have my own family, but I have just realized that I eat a lot of meals every week with my friends and colleagues, often at restaurants but also at their homes. Maybe I am simply avoiding my own kitchen, but I think not. I am actually a pretty good cook. What I gain from my meals with others goes way beyond convenience. These meals with others are filling but moreover fulfilling. They make me feel part of a larger group.

Other people matter. Given the constraints of a 24-hour day, we need to capitalize on any and all opportunities to commune with others. Eating works well, given that we all must do it. Bon appétit!

Reference

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2011, September). The importance of family dinners. New York: author.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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