Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Family Dinners - Am I a Failure?

I remember the day, 15 years ago, when we attended the bank signing for the purchase of our home. The realtors and the lawyers said they wished they could have videotaped the transaction to use as a teaching tool. It was the smoothest and most cordial signing they had witnessed in all of their combined memories.

The family we bought the house from was building a new home in town. During the months leading up to the sale, we had become friends. They had five kids, with their two youngest corresponding in age to our two oldest. At the time, my son was five and my daughter was two. Over the years, our families spent many hours together. We shared their trials of homebuilding, and they crossed their fingers that nothing serious would break down in the house they just sold to us. I felt guilty changing wallpaper and repainting and their kids loved being able to come back to the neighborhood and swing on their old swing set and play with old friends. We shared birthdays and holidays, illness and joy.

Being about eight years behind them in parenting years, I often used them as a meter stick of what was to come. They had kids in all grade ranges, from high school down to preschool. My oldest was first embarking on kindergarten, and they weren’t that far from sending their first child off to college. Upon reflection, I realized that we were in such different places in our lives, and to her credit, my friend embraced me, despite my having an infant added to the mix. Maybe she loved the chaos, maybe she just missed that “new baby” smell, or maybe she just saw a kinship in me.

Whatever the reason, we found ourselves at each other’s houses a lot. I remember being in her kitchen, frequently in late afternoons. She was a great mom, devoted to her kids, their schools and their activities. But something always bothered me. It seemed they never all sat down for dinner together. She was always preparing dinner for somebody to eat early or giving them cold cereal or pulling out leftovers. I had always believed that dinnertime was such an important family bonding time, yet this family that seemed so bonded, never ate a meal together. I have to admit, I was perplexed and a bit judgmental - how could she not see the importance of the family dinner? I never asked her about it but I admit feeling a bit disappointed in my mentor.

Had I asked her about it, I probably would have heard this: “We all used to sit down together, but now it’s impossible, the kids have sports practices, job obligations and evening meetings at the high school. I have meetings as well. We do the best we can.” Oh, I guess having three young children whose lives I was in complete control of allowed me the luxury of deciding when we would all eat. I say this because I am now in the same position my friend was in, twelve years ago. Although I don’t have very young children, like she did at the time, I still have a 12 year old, a child who deserves to have those family dinners we had when my son, my oldest, was 12.

I raise this point because a couple of weeks ago a Columbia University study recently found that “teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades in school and much less likely to have substance abuse problems”. That’s a powerful message being sent to the millions of families who can’t or don’t embrace this family ritual.

I refuse to accept that my family is guilty of the same. However every Sunday night, as I peruse the calendar for the week, is another Sunday night when I realize it is an impossible dream. Practically every weeknight, somebody has to eat early because of practice, a club or a job, or somebody is eating late, for the same reason. Most nights, I will sit down early with the kids for dinner, but then my husband misses out, and honestly it doesn’t feel like a family dinner without him. Although he still gets home at a reasonable dinner hour, it’s often too late because at least one of the kids, or myself, needs to leave for a meeting or the kids are starving and want to eat before they begin their night of homework. Sometimes we will sit with him while he eats, but not very often.

So far, 3 out of my 4 kids who are teenagers or beyond (in the case of my son) are excellent students and nobody has any substance abuse problems. Should I fear for my youngest, since she hasn’t shared the foundation of family dinners that we had when her siblings were her age?

Here’s my rationale: I believe that the benefit of the “family dinner,” is more about having the opportunity for families to communicate and share a continuous dialogue. By sharing nightly meals together, kids can count on the fact that you, the parent, are checking in and talking about their day, sharing views on events in the world and asking questions. It creates a regular venue for all of this to occur. But that’s not to say that it is the only place that it can occur. Often, we will find ourselves sitting around later in the evening and having the same kinds of conversations that might have occurred earlier around the dinner table. It doesn’t happen every evening, but it happens frequently enough, that perhaps it serves the same purpose. I’ve always enjoyed the spontaneity of these discussions and they often last much longer than a quick dinner where everyone is rushing off to do whatever has to get done.

So, I admit that I feel guilty that we don’t all sit down together around the dinner table every night. We won’t give up trying and some weeks we are more successful than others. But maybe my rationale isn’t so bad, because the quality of the interactions that my family does have may be just as beneficial as sharing a meal around the table. Or maybe I am just rationalizing.

And my friend, with the 5 kids - I probably owe her an apology. My mother has always told me, you never truly know what it feels like until you are living it yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

brings back wonderful memories of how important dinner was in our house when I was growing up in the 50's and 60's!
made me think about Mom & Dad and a nice childhood!
a friend