Thoughtful Parenting: The importance of the family dinner

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It goes without saying that adults are impressed by children who have a sophisticated vocabulary. Our ability to communicate verbally is one of the most important social intelligence assets we have. 

One study from the Harvard School of Education examined children’s use of certain words that have been found to be good markers of literacy. Of the 2,000 words researchers were looking for, 143 came from parents reading to their kids, and more than 1,000 of the words were learned at the dinner table. 

This is not to say we should not read to our kids. It does, however, reiterate the critical role of the family dinner in fostering healthy development. Having dinner as a family is one of the most important things you can do to raise happy, healthy children. 

Need convincing? 

Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders or consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and have good manners. The associations exist regardless of whether the families were reported to have high degrees of connectedness.

Meaningful mealtimes

Modeling: Kids learn to try new foods by watching their parents eat those foods. It takes several exposures to a food before kids acquire a taste for it. Model healthy eating, and your kids will become healthy eaters. Kids who don’t eat with their parents tend to have a limited diet.

Engagement: We are busy. In today’s world, we have very little time to truly connect with the people we care most about. Family dinners provide an ideal opportunity to connect with your kids.

If you need help getting things going, play the game Rose, Bud, Thorn. Everyone at the table takes turns sharing their rose (the best thing that happened to them that day), their thorn (the worst things that happened to them) and their bud (the thing they are looking forward to tomorrow). Try it once, and your kids will ask for it every night.

Family rituals: A ritual illustrates our values. When we make dinnertime a family ritual, it sends our kids the message that family engagement is important. A regular family dinner can provide a sense of comfort and security for children, helps manage stress and provides structure in a chaotic world.  

Finding time

Family dinners can be difficult to schedule when parents have to work late or when kids get older and have lots of activities. Try to pick at least one night each week where the family dinner is sacrosanct. On that night, make it a big deal. Use the fancy plates and napkins. Plan to sit for a while, keep the toys and the smartphone away from the dinner table and, most importantly, turn off the TV.

If you work late and your kids need to eat before you get home, develop a pre-bedtime family ritual focused on the dinner table. For example, have them sit with you and feed them a healthy snack before bed. The act of engagement around the table, even if everyone is not eating, creates a sense of harmony for a family on the run.

Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization that provides solutions to help families become more resilient to stress in their lives. Race has been a member of the First Impressions Executive Committee for the past five years.

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