Pulling the family together for a meal has many challenges at any time of year. But as spring heads into summer, the threads of family life drift outside, each person often with their own destination.
In her book The Village Effect, psychologist Dr. Susan Pinker devotes several pages to the scientific research that confirms the many positive effects on families that gather round the dinner table. In general, her book details the importance of face to face contact making us happier and healthier.
Regarding family dinners together, she begins with statements that should catch the attention of any parent. "The more meals you eat with your child, the larger the child's vocabulary and the higher his or her grades, an effect that is exaggerated in girls.' As well regular family dinners are linked to whether your child will or will not " get derailed by sex, drugs, binging and purging, depression and suicidal thoughts.'All of a parent's hopes, dreams, and fears are wrapped up in those statements.
By its very nature, the family unit is deeply connected emotionally. Our very first relationship in life is that of our family. As in any relationship, face to face time is key to the health of that connection. Family bonds are 'the ties that bind' and mealtime is an important aspect of that bonding.
Simple mealtime ground rules are necessary. Put away the devices and talk face to face. It may be a struggle at first and Dr. Pinker has treated parents that are actually fearful of the demands of a family dinner. But don't give up.
Mealtime is also the " Miss Manners" time for family. Children learn to be at a table with their good behaviour. Saying please and thank you, and waiting their turn in a conversation, are part of any number of life lessons that take place breaking bread.
Dr. Anne Fischel is the co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and concurs with Pinker's premise as well as offering handy conversation starters.
Pinker notes an added bonus for the family. The research indicates that families deal with stress and difficulties more effectively and have stronger coping skills when mealtimes have been shared.
It's particularly timely to consider the benefits of family mealtime when traditional family life is being fractured by technical distractions in the form of cell phones, and other devices.
Society's changing family dining dynamic showed itself during a recent holiday with my family. My younger son and I stopped for breakfast at a little bistro we both like while on our way to the airport. It's a favourite foodie joint, jammed with tables and people.
At the table right beside us enjoying the same delicious Belgian waffle breakfast was a family of four. Each of them was on a device. There were no words exchanged or any face to face contact during the meal. Not even a collective ooh and ah when the beautifully plated meal arrived. Nobody talked to each other for the entire meal.
After a ten day visit, my son and I still had much to chat about that morning. I felt sorry for the family beside us. I am so grateful that after 40 plus years and many family dinners with both my sons, we have never run out of conversation.
Shared meal time produces better conversationalists. Like any skill it requires consistent practice over time. We know that often the more you do of something the better you get. The flip side is that the less you do of something like talk as a family, then it is possible those empty silent voids during family togetherness will probably increase. The thread of connection thins as a result when opportunities for face to face family time are missed.
Warmer weather brings new challenges for making time for family meals together. But be creative, and place expectations on your child to make the mealtime. Barbecues, backyard picnics, meeting at a park, there are any number of ways to make sure the family gets together for meals.
Research studies support the notion that dining together at least four times a week makes a difference. Mealtimes last on average twenty minutes. There is nothing in the research that suggests meals must be gourmet with organic ingredients, nor does Einstein need to lead any discussion. Being present without distractions, with comfort and cohesion are the key components.
Pinker's book supports the concept that connected, personal relationships help us live healthier, happier, longer lives.
Look around the next time you are in a coffee shop or restaurant. How many families are actually talking to each other, making face to face connections? Then look at your family members and consider starting a conversation.
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