The Family Dinner Table Could Be Overrated (Part 1)
By: Amber Kinser
I’ve heard lots of talk over the years and a good bit of it recently, lamenting the decline of time around the dinner table. And I get concerned about the mothers for whom a sit-down meal with multiple bowls of steaming food passed between family members seated together in the dining room amid lively and joyful conversation may be elusive. Or may prove to be an immense amount of work with very little gratification. Or may end up being at various family stages just too dang hard to make any sense. Been there and done a whole bunch of that. To hear many tell the tale, the sit-down dinner served ‘family style’ is the answer to most adolescent and teen problems: alcohol and drug use, low nutrition, unhealthy sexual choices, depression, and obesity to name a primary few.
I am getting flashbacks to the early part of the 20th century’s American rhetoric which essentially argued that it was mothers who could stave off the emasculating effects of the Great Depression, who could produce soldiers capable of protecting the country, who were responsible for so much that was wrong with the country and therefore for turning it around. Before that, Black mothers shouldered much of the responsibility prior to and during the World War I era for the ‘uplift of the race’ through the lifting up the home and the family. And then during WWII, White women in particular were model citizens if they worked, (especially in the war effort, and kids were just fine in childcare all day) and then they were job-stealers and negligent parents if they worked after WWII. Notice how the cures to societal ills stand on the backs of mothers.
The research on the value of families sharing meal times never actually says that it is mothers who could solve these adolescent and teen problems; so surely that’s an improvement. But the implication is there just the same. It doesn’t take much to see that it is probably mothers who will internalize this research, or mothers’ activities that are critiqued or that, if funneled into this form of meal provision over that form, could save their children from ruin. It is still the case that those who do most meal provision are women. And so it is that comments about meals are often enough comments about what mothers are doing about them.
So it’s important to read this research warily (see the links below for examples) and to resist the temptation to have mothers carry the burden alone. And it’s also important not to make the mistake of confusing “shared family meals” with some narrow image of everyone sitting around the table passing the green beans and sliced roast. The research seems to be looking at ‘shared’ meals which, of course, can take a variety of forms, and may not even include a dinner table. The research also is connecting open paths of communication and greater nutritional content to the shared dinner. But these are not exclusive to the ‘family dinner’ as many of us typically think of it and furthermore can be acquired other ways. That many families don’t is not to say that better nutrition and better communication can’t be acquired other ways or that there aren’t plenty of families who provide both in their family even though they eat while watching TV, or standing around in the kitchen, or in separate rooms at times. So do see what this research has to say, and don’t assume stereotypical models of mealtimes are the answer. Plenty of families who employ them still have problems, and plenty of families who don’t are doing well.
I’ll be blogging more about this topic of family meals in the month of June, so keep following Thursdays with Dr. Mama!
US Department of Health and Human Services http://family.samhsa.gov/get/mealtime.aspx
University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health http://www.sph.umn.edu/news/pubs/advances/mealsW10.asp
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University http://projecthelp.org/family_meals/10%20Benefits%20of%20Family%20Dinner.pdf