Research says the family dinner is a very good thing, but when you're sitting around the table, how do you get the conversation rolling? It's a challenge that books and newspaper articles are starting to tackle.
"It sounds terrible, but sometimes I am too tired at dinnertime to talk to my kids. It’s not that I don’t want to have a stimulating conversation with them; I want nothing more," writes Casey Seidenberg for the Washington Post. "I live for those thought-provoking dialogues that leave me feeling connected and as if I have passed on nuggets of lasting wisdom to my children. Yet, there are evenings when my mind just can’t get past the 'How was your day?' or 'What were your roses and thorns?' questions."
According to research reported in 2011 from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, when families typically eat dinner together the children are much less likely to use illegal drugs, drink alcohol or smoke. And parents who can get their children to age 21 without having used those substances will likely never have to worry about those children and substance abuse.
"Parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., founder and chairman of the center, at the time of the CASA Columbia report.
When Cody C. Delistraty's mom died and his brother moved overseas, the family dinner fell apart. He and his dad stopped having one, for a time, wrote Delistraty in a recent article on Quartz that was originally published in The Atlantic. But his father suggested they resume their meals together.
While the meals were nothing special — they were not particularly good cooks, he wrote — "it was therapeutic: an excuse to talk, to reflect on the day and on recent events. Our chats about the banal — of baseball and television — often led to discussions of the serious — of politics and death, of memories and loss. Eating together was a small act, and it required very little of us — 45 minutes away from our usual, quotidian distractions — and yet it was invariably one of the happiest parts of my day."
Delistraty cites a bundle of research regarding the benefits of family mealtime: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that children who eat with their families are less apt to skip school. Those who don't eat dinner with family at least two times a week are more often overweight than those who do, according to research at the European Congress on Obesity. Children who do eat dinner with family at least five days a week also eat healthier, do better in school and form tighter relationships with their parents than do the children who eat with parents less often or not at all.
The dinner table, he wrote, "can act as a unifier, a place of community."
Which leads back to the question of how to start conversations that matter.
Seidenberg, who is co-founder of the nutrition education company Nourish Schools, suggests games, conversation-starter questions and even trivia books to get the conversation going. With older kids, newspaper and magazine articles can be helpful. She also points to Huffington Post's Family Dinner Downloads.
The Family Dinner Project says that the best conversations start with a well-worded question — and it provides a bunch of them.
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