How to Help Your Children Thrive by Growing Roots Then Wings
Simple practices, such as family meals, can make a massive positive difference.
Posted Dec 31, 2020
When we do our jobs as parents well, we give our kids roots, and then we help them grow wings. Roots provide a stable and solid attachment that connects parents and their children—a secure foundation from which children can grow and develop.
Creating a secure base for children requires a parental commitment to being attuned and taking action in ways that promote safety, security, and trust. Children develop a sense of safety, security, and trust through consistency, reliability, and stability on the part of their parents. Such commitment involves devotion to cultivating and maintaining the soil in which our children’s roots grow, making it soft, receptive, and fertile by:
- Providing consistent physical and emotional protection
- Being responsive to our children’s individual needs and interests
- Showing our children kindness, compassion, and empathy
- Providing appropriate structure—setting and enforcing boundaries, limits, and consequences
Wings equip children to separate and individuate from their parents—taking off from that secure base toward a future of their own choosing. The solid foundation poured during early childhood becomes a runway in adolescence and young adulthood. Helping your children grow healthy wings entails:
- Role-modeling real-life examples of acceptance, integrity, responsibility, tolerance, honesty, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, and love
- Nurturing their physical, emotional, intellectual, and ethical development
- Encouraging their burgeoning age-appropriate autonomy
Part of tilling and nurturing the soil in which children’s roots can grow strong and deep is balancing love with limits. Help children learn healthy boundaries through a structure that includes setting—and, as necessary, enforcing—appropriate limits. Regular family rituals that help to mitigate stress and serve as anchors of connection also facilitate the development of healthy roots. Among the most therapeutically valuable of these is the family meal.
When I was Vice President of Counseling at a large outpatient behavioral health service agency, our clinical staff had monthly case consultations with an eminent child psychiatrist. During one of the consultations, he observed that among the children he treated, almost none of their families sat down to eat together. It seemed to him that family meals had become practically extinct. The simple notion of using regular family meals as a therapeutic intervention struck all of us, and subsequently, our therapists used it with their clients.
Long before this, when my now-adult daughters were young, I had committed to the practice of having regular family dinners with them. No one else seemed to accord it the value I did; my daughters intermittently pushed back and grumbled about it, even when they were younger. But I was determined that at least once a day, we would gather in the same place at the same time with minimal distraction. It was a built-in opportunity to talk about our daily lives and simply be with one another.
Even if the meal was fairly brief, sometimes lasting no more than 20 minutes, that time was sacrosanct. We were present—together. Not surprisingly, as my daughters grew older, their pushback escalated, but I held my ground, and we continued to have family dinners together regularly until my eldest daughter went away to college. The three of us who remained continued the practice until their mother and I separated when my younger daughter was 15.
With the outsized demands of everyday life in the 21st century, it may seem like an impossible task to get your family together at the same time for a meal. Everyone seems to move in different directions at high speed with competing needs and interests. Kids have school, extracurricular activities, and homework. Parents have work—and sometimes school—in addition to their own outside interests and self-care priorities. Single parents are spread even more thinly, and parents in recovery have additional commitments and needs related to self-care.
Despite the challenges you face, make it a priority to have family meals together at home as consistently as possible, even if it’s only two or three times a week. Daily is ideal, but often life is not. Make the time and space to have meals as a family around a table, not sitting on the couch.
Because creating this time and space becomes harder as children age and move into adolescence and young adulthood, parents need to give consistent messages prioritizing it. As important as having family meals is the condition that no phones or other electronic devices are allowed at the table, making family meals a phone, text, social media, and TV-free zone. This applies to everyone, including parents.
Pay attention to the quality of interaction during your family meals. Seek to make the experience as positive and nurturing as you can. This is not the time to scold your kids or eat in uneasy silence. Engage your kids in conversation. Ask them to tell you about their day: What was challenging for them? What was the best part of their day? Share some of your day with them. This is an opportunity to unplug from external distractions and plug into each other.
Beyond strengthening family bonds and improving communication, recent research demonstrates that having regular family meals has many powerful benefits for children and adolescents, including improved nutrition and a lower long-term risk of obesity. Mealtime conversation improves the vocabulary of young children even more than being read to.
Regular family meals are a simple and effective way to reduce adolescents’ risk of using tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, as well as improving their academic performance. The more frequent the family dinners, the more children experience parental support, are committed to learning, respect boundaries, have positive values and positive identity, and demonstrate social competencies. Moreover, more frequent family dinners also correlate with lower rates of substance use, sexual activity, depression, suicide, antisocial behaviors, violence, school problems, binge eating, and purging. These positive results are generally consistent among many different types of families across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Copyright 2020 Dan Mager, MSW
(1) Jerica M. Berge et al., “The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-Year Longitudinal Associations,” Journal of Pediatrics 166, no. 2: 296–301.
 C. E. Snow and D. E. Beals, “Mealtime Talk that Supports Literacy Development,” New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development(2006): 51–66. doi:10.1002/cd.155.
 QEV Analytics, Ltd. And Knowledge Networks, The Importance of Family Dinners VI, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University (September 2010).
 Jayne A. Fulkerson, et al., “Family Dinner Meal Frequency and Adolescent Development: Relationships with Developmental Assets and High-Risk Behaviors,” Journal of Adolescent Health 39, no. 3: 337–345.