Ways of Seeing by Abi Sessions: A family grows around the table

Family Dinnertime
Something’s gotta give, right? A young family with kids can’t possibly do all the things that tug at them: jobs, school, kids’ school, kids’ sports, kids’ lessons, friends, housework, yardwork, cars breaking down, the roof leaking. …
Does a state of triage sound accurate? Some things get done, some go on hold, and some get thrown overboard. 
Too often, I fear, family dinner — preparing and eating the evening meal together — goes overboard.
I know this from extensive sociological research undertaken under the most scientific conditions when I was a fifth-grade teacher. I asked a representative sample of 10- through 12-year-olds from a wide geographic area within Vermont this question: How does your family eat dinner?
The answers surprised me.
“Mom gets a bucket of KFC and we eat it when we want to.”
“Mom and Dad are too tired, so I just make a peanut butter sandwich.”
“We have places to go, so we just get McDonald’s.”
“I microwave a burrito and take it to my room and watch TV.”
Things with our children are worse than I had thought if the simple old-fashioned ritual of eating together at the end of the day is as endangered as it appeared.
My parents were both professionals with full-time jobs, but family dinnertime was a ritual that anchored the end of every workday. If we were dirty or sweaty we changed our clothes. We washed our hands. We arrived on time, and we sat together around a table. Mom (yes, always Mom) served up whatever she had cooked, whether plain or fancy, disgusting or delicious, and we ate it. Two bites at least.
But conversation was the important part. It was our chance to tell what happened to us during the day, and respond to what had happened to other family members. We discussed current events and neighborhood news. We liked hearing what our parents were interested in. My father loved puzzles, so he often had a new one for us. He also loved my younger brother’s tennis-playing ability, and I’ll admit I would have been happy to hear a lot less on that topic!
In my junior year of high school, I realized partway through the SATs that I knew many of the answers not from high school classes, but from our family dinner table conversations! 
Forty years ago when my husband and I were setting up housekeeping, a dining table was our first purchase. As our kids began to spin out into the world, getting everyone home for dinner was a priority. Bill or I served up whatever we had cooked, whether plain or fancy, disgusting or delicious, and we all ate it. Two bites at least. And if any of it came from our own garden, I felt obliged to point that out. 
At that time there probably weren’t any studies on the benefits of family dinners, but current research indicates many advantages for children and youth, such as:
•Healthier eating, less obesity
•Less drug use, smoking and drinking
•Improved vocabulary, grades and interest in school
•Early detection of issues or problems
•Lower stress for all family members
•Greater feeling of connection to family
Wow! You could pay high-priced professionals to attempt to achieve any of these outcomes — or you can do it by simply making time to have dinner together as a family a few nights a week. I’d call that excellent bang for the buck: huge benefits from a simple effort.
One never knows what will become of a cherished family tradition when the children are out on their own, whether or not there’s research to support its benefits. I am happy to say that this tradition seems well established in the next generation of our family. When our granddaughter (now 10 years old) was four, she was describing her days. “Dinnertime,” she explained with delight, “is when the whole family comes together and everybody gets to talk about their day.”
Lucky girl.
Abi Sessions is a retired educator with three grown children and three grandchildren. She lives and gardens and still serves up dinner in Cornwall with her husband, Bill.

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