Whatever Happened To Family Dinner Hour - Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My husband and I have two children, ages 8 and 6, and enjoy a fairly satisfying family life. My question is about family dinner time.

Why are sports, scouts, and even dance classes through the county Recreation Department scheduled during 5 pm to 7 pm on weekdays? It’s sometimes hard enough to tear one or the other child away from the computer or tv to come to the table, but between the two of them, we now have two weeknights each week when dinner could best be described as fragmented grazing, some of which is conducted in the car. Otherwise, dinner is late, rushed, and so close to bedtime that it just feels wrong. I often wonder if bad dreams, from a full stomach, and wet beds, from a full bladder, are due to this wacky scheduling. Whatever happened to “after school” activities being held right after school?

What Time is Dinner Time

 

Dear WTiDT,

Family dinner times are indeed threatened by modern family life. There are many contributing factors including the automobile, working mothers, and the market for organized extracurricular activities. None of these things is inherently bad, it’s just that families are willing and able to participate in so many after school activities that there are so many things to do. Therefore, facilities that host these activities try their best to squeeze in as many as they can between 3 pm and 8 pm. Moreover, any parent, scout leader, coach, or dance teacher with a “day job” may not be available until 5 pm or later, further squeezing this valuable time block. Any schedule leaving enough time to be home by bedtime is fair game on a school night.

You have the right idea, though. Research suggests  that when families routinely gather for good food and conversation each evening, the children have larger vocabularies, higher grades, higher self-esteem, and less trouble as teens. Family dinners also work against childhood obesity and adolescent eating disorders. Dr. Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the non-profit Family Dinner Project, affirms that “the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience.”
Let’s see what may be at risk and how this risk can be offset.

Daily Consistency
Children do best when family life has predictable and positive daily routines. Although the four of you may not be sitting down together, the parent and child left at home could enjoy a routine of their own in the absence of the other two members. For example, Dad’s Dinner might involve foods he particularly enjoys cooking (or reheating, or ordering in). When you’re the one doing the shuttling, you might enrich your selection of Car Food with enough nutrition power to count as a meal, perhaps with a petite portion of something warm to top of your tummy tanks when you get home.

Family Conversation
One of the best benefits of a family meal is the verbal interaction. Parents and children alike treat one another with interest and concern as bodies are nourished and bonds are nurtured. Parents can set the tone for listening and asking good questions about how the day went for the most significant people in their lives. When you’re short on dinner time for meeting this need, find other times to connect as a foursome, perhaps you can swap Family Dinner for Family Breakfast on certain days. Or become the family that takes a Family Walk or Family Car Trip, or spends extended time in the kitchen together, each weekend.

Time for Friends
Since school takes up a big chunk of the day for children the ages of your two, it is important to keep time open for them to play with friends. Unstructured playtime is invaluable for honing social skills. This is more easily accomplished on a day that doesn’t add another commute for scouts, sports, or another weekly activity right after homework. Have you ever doubled up on Friend Time for the child staying home on those days a sibling has to scoot off as soon as the homework gets packed back into its folder? The invitation for a friend to come over to play could extend through dinner. A good friend can be good company, and gives your child practice in using (and the parent at home practice in teaching) “company manners.” This could even be a regular arrangement – meshing with the friend’s family’s schedule to scoot another one of their children off to an activity. A perfect match is the neighbor with two children who are friends with your two so that Friend Time alternates between time at each other’s home and time in the car pool to the rec. center with one another’s parents!

Be the Convener
Another tactic for solving the problem of inconvenient scheduling would be for you to take on the role of scout leader, sports coach, or recreation activity teacher. I’m assuming that since you would prefer these pursuits be held before dinner time rather than after, that your schedule could accommodate being available right after school. If there is enough interest among students at your children’s school, you would be in high demand to offer meeting somewhere in the school building, or within walking distance, to bypass the transportation challenges for parents who work until a couple of hours after school dismissal time. You might look for a partner in this since two adult heads are often better than one for managing children’s activities. If you’d rather, offer to be the co-leader, assistant coach, or teacher’s aide, with a partner more qualified to take the lead.

As times change, and family schedules are forced to shift around, let’s not lose sight of what’s important for good parenting.

Dr. Debbie

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