Family mealtime a crock? Thank goodness!

A study recently came out from Cornell University questioning the benefits of family meal time. You know, that evening-time standard

upon which so many families, including mine, have based their parental success? That time of day that is supposed to increase family bonding, clue us in on what’s going on in our children’s brains and lives and is supposed to prevent them from getting into all sorts of trouble too terrifying to even think about. To this I say: What a relief!

I can’t tell you how many times I have stressed over making sure the whole family is together, gathered ‘round the table eating something fabulously healthy, engaging in worthwhile discussion and bonding. I have to confess, it hasn’t gone well.

Most nights, that lovely bonding experience collapses into cajoling them to try something new, eat their vegetables, stop tipping back in their chair, quit punching each other, don’t insult your sister, tell me what’s new in your life, etc. We can’t WAIT until dinner’s over! And now that it’s summer, we’re eating outside every night which, I’m sure, my neighbors just love. Maybe that’s why they started closing their windows and doors when they see the kids set the table…

Now before you think we are all heathens, I have to say it’s not like that every night (most nights, but not every night). Some nights, they eat what’s put in front of them. There are rounds of jovial laughter, thoughts are shared, people are happy and smiling and it’s almost like a Norman Rockwell painting. Why weren’t the neighbor’s windows open for those nights?!

Lest I feel like a complete failure as a parent because our family meal times are not all they are supposed to be, the Cornell study says all is not lost. They found that the association between family meals and kid well-being is due to other aspects of the family environment including economics, time spent together and the general closeness of the relationships.

In the June edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and lead author of the study says “Meals may afford a regular and positive context for parents to connect with children emotionally, to monitor their social and academic activities and to convey values and expectations. This is what we suspect is driving any causal relationship between family dinners and child well-being. But family dinners also appear to be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities, and it’s unclear how well family dinners would work unbundled from the rest of that package.”

This news takes so much pressure off of family meal times. They don’t have to be the be-all and end-all of success as a family anymore which is great because I always had my doubts as to their magical powers. My husband and I have often talked about the unplanned, magical moments that happen when riding in the car with one or more of the kids, or walking with them to school, sitting next to them on the couch watching a movie or even while we’re doing chores. All of the sudden, completely unprompted, they’ll open up and divulge something and a conversation starts. At those times, we know we have to bite our tongues and remain calm and cool even if what they are telling us is worrisome or goes against our very grain. We have to let it unfold and then let the conversation between us flow as calmly as we can so that they will want to do this again and again. That’s where our closeness and, I believe, the reinforcement of our family values are strengthened. And broccoli had nothing to do with it.

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