Maybe the family dinner isn’t overrated after all.
The new word is that the family dinner has been freighted with too much significance. Research was recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family that challenges the benefit to children of sharing this meal. The new findings will allow busy and anxious parents to relax a little.
Earlier research had seemed to prove that regular dinners played an important role in reducing the likelihood of three things among young people: depressive symptoms, drug and alcohol use, and delinquency. The work of sociologists Ann Meier of the University of Minnesota and Kelly Musick of Cornell University suggests that only teen depression seems to be significantly forestalled by family dinners. They conclude that parents can find other ways to compensate for the rarity of this shared time.
Of course I grew up in a time when eating together except during the school year was what everybody did most of the time. It’s odd to think of it having become so unusual. And in reading this article, I was reminded of a benefit that the researchers didn’t address. It may have been unique to my family, but maybe it’s worth general consideration.
I come from a long line of storytellers on both sides, and I remember lingering long over many meals as my parents talked. Their sharing may have had to do with the desire to tell us about relatives we saw only in the summers. My father had moved us to Texas from the South when my three siblings and I were all very young, and so we learned about “our people” from their memories.
As I said, they were great storytellers, and we were fascinated. The array of colorful characters was extraordinary. They had served in wars, been devastated by the Depression, and achieved distinctions on both sides that made us very proud. Then there were other stories about the shadow side of our lineage in those who were miserly, intemperate, even violent. Some anecdotes revealed the way Negroes had been treated that was puzzling from an El Paso perspective.
My father died unexpectedly at age 45, and the dinner table kind of went quiet after that. Nevertheless, he had been with us long enough for my parents to give us a very good idea of who we were, what our values were, and where our individual interests had come from, as in art, writing, ballet, hunting and fishing, literature, etc. We were all carrying on certain traits established by our ancestors.
Dinner time had been a form of initiation, and it was very important with regard to another I experienced years later. I was selected in high school to become a member of a very elite social club. I was kidnapped in the middle of the night, with my mother’s knowledge of course, to be put through certain trials. The first phase was embarrassing and there was a sacrilegious part that bothered me a little. The next phase was a bridge too far.
I was instructed not to wear makeup to school and to answer to the name “Scum.” As I remember, I endured that for one day. Then I came home and informed my mother that I would resign. That created quite a stir at school. Even the counselor, whose daughter was a member of the club, tried to deter me, saying I was making a big mistake. I wouldn’t budge. I knew who I was–who we were–and we were not scum.
At this remove, I understand that dinner time had inoculated me against the kind of peer pressure the social club experience represented. My subsequent history is not one of faultless judgment or integrity. However, I think the family storytelling at mealtime served to guard me and all my siblings from the influences so perilous to adolescents these days. I’m not sure that you can endow that protective sense of pride in any other way. Maybe the family dinner isn’t overrated after all.