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The Family Dinner

October 17, 2013 | by Emuna Braverman

Why it needs to be a priority in your home.

By now everyone knows the benefits of family dinners – better grades, less obesity, less substance abuse, better relationships with parents and better mental health (based on the 2011 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse). Even one family dinner per week (Shabbos anyone?) makes a big difference (in fact a 15% reduction in the odds of substance abuse as well as a reduction in depressive symptoms and delinquency).

It seems like a no-brainer, a fairly simple solution to a myriad of serious problems. Yet many families find it very difficult to implement.

I have to confess that my children have not been involved in team sports. Although I drove a mini-van, I was never a “soccer” mom. After-school activities were kept to a minimum and, except for the particularly intense times of school performances, our family ate dinner together every night.

I’m not asking for praise. It actually wasn’t very hard to accomplish. We were lucky that my husband’s office is a 5-minute drive from our house. He could come home for dinner (baths, stories and homework, depending on the age) and then return to his office or go out to teach afterwards. It was a commitment we made together but it was pretty easy to keep.

If time with our children is a priority, we need to adjust our schedule accordingly.

But for families whose children have multiple yet not the same extra-curricular interests, just balancing the schedule – the carpooling, the equipment purchase and cleaning, the attendance at games and recitals – can be a logistical nightmare.

How can they possibly fit in this all-important family dinner? How can they fit in any dinner at all? (Shabbos anyone?)

So now parents are asking a new question, “How Long Does Dinner Have to Be?” (Wall Street Journal, 9/18/13) I get it. I really do. They want to make it all work. But maybe, just maybe, they’re asking the wrong question.

Why is the assumption that family dinner has to be fit in amidst this other barrage of activities? Couldn’t we turn this assumption on its head and ask the opposite question? How do we fit these activities around our family dinner?

It seems to me a question of priorities. Sure team sports can be a wonderful experience for children. And there is much to be learned. But do the studies list the same benefits as they do for family dinners? And how many team sports or extra-curricular activities do we need? Isn’t one enough? Is this about what the children want, what everyone else is doing or even perhaps college resumes?

When does the downside of the constant rushing, the stress, the lack of relaxed family time outweigh the benefits of that soccer tournament? I don’t have the answers (Shabbos anyone?) but I certainly have lots of questions.

I can’t believe that just any family dinner, no matter how short, will be equally effective. I think some minimal time commitment is necessary. If you go away on vacation, it usually takes a day just to unwind and separate. Dinnertime is not that different. First, we unwind; then we relax, switch gears, and talk to our families. I don’t think an 8-minute dinner allows time for both.

You can’t have quality time without providing quantity time.

Likewise I’ve never bought the mantra that “It’s quality time not quantity time that counts.” You can’t have quality time without providing quantity time. Children and relationships are not spigots that you can turn on and off at will. They may need to sit quietly for 20 minutes at the dinner table before they are ready to talk. In fact they may want to approach you with something on their mind at 10:30 p.m. Are you home? Available? It’s frequently only when homework is done and the day is winding down that real issues emerge.

Dinner is a microcosm of this experience. It can’t be rushed. Of course we can’t have long dinners every night (Shabbos anyone?). And not everyone’s office is close to home. Compromises need to be made. But let’s be honest and realistic. We must examine our priorities. If it’s time with our children that we really want, and especially dinner time with our children, then we need to adjust our schedule accordingly.

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