Athens to Atlanta (Part II): The Importance of Family Dinners
My final workshop of the day at Saturday’s Georgia Organics Conference, was called “Family Dinner: The Real Happy Meal.” Emory Psychology professor, Marshall P. Duke, began his presentation making the disclaimer that he’s neither a foodie, nor a farmer. Despite this statement, Duke gave a lecture that grabbed directly at my ‘food-heart’ about the value of food, especially preparing and sharing meals. Duke spoke about the importance of families eating dinner together and the correlation between children’s resiliency and whether or not they eat family dinner. When I taught at a day school I was always amazed by how few of my students actually ate dinner with their families at night. We lead such busy lives, that people and children often eat meals on the run or in the backseat of a car. As you know, David and I love sharing meals together, with friends and family. We enjoy the time that we have with people around the table, ideas shared and insights learned. We hope to one day do the same with our children.
Duke works and researches at the Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in Family Life and he spoke about his findings in regards to the importance of families creating rituals and memories as a family. If you gather at the table together, as a family, you share stories and memories, as well as create your own. The study began with asking children questions about their family history and those that knew the answers tended to be more resilient and likely to avoid cigarettes, alcohol and other destructive behaviors. It turns out that it’s not knowing the answers to these questions that makes children resilient, but HOW they learn the answers to these questions.
So how do children learn about their family history? It turns out that these stories are shared around the dinner table. Conversations at the table allow children to identify with their family history, especially the ups and downs of past generations. Duke said that those children who are provided with an ‘oscillating memory shape’ (one that shares both the good and bad) will be more likely to identify with those stories of resilience and overcoming obstacles when they encounter their own life hurdles. By sharing family stories, you send the message to your children that they belong to a family that transcends and overcomes. When a child then encounters a tough situation, they are more likely to cope with it positively because they know that family members have previously dealt successfully with difficult times. Duke said that family dinner is the variable within our control that affects our children the most. Such a simple change that can provide such positive outcomes and be fun.
I believe that food has the power to transform situations. We’re vulnerable at the table. We sit facing one another, breaking bread together and sharing who we are. Even simple conversations connect us. If you’re interested in reading more about the importance of family meals, check out Miriam Weinstein’s book, The Surprising Power of Family Meals. So put away the Iphone, turn off the TV, and give the family meal a try.