With the holidays upon us, there's likely going to be a lot of family gatherings -- meals included. It brings up the question of how essential these rituals are to you -- not just at holiday time, but all the time.
Family dinners can be a loving, predictable routine that make kids feel safe and cherished. It's wonderful to know there is something you can always count on, even when there's so much unpredictability and change in our fast-paced lives. Yet with all the activities kids are running to after school -- sports, arts, music, and more -- family meals often fall to the wayside. Trying to juggle multiple kids' schedules becomes an almost Herculean task. So it's crucial to think about what's key to your family -- what your values are -- and come up with a workable solution.
Find a workable solution:
There's a wide range of what works. Some of the families I treat insist on the importance of gathering together every night. They believe that touching base daily is critical, especially after such busy days. These families work their kids' schedules so that there is only one after school activity a day. If Jonny might have soccer on Monday, Erin waits until Tuesday for her piano lesson. Dad leaves for work early in the am, and if need be, finishes a project after the kids are in bed. That way, everyone is home for dinner.
Other folks choose a couple of nights a week as treasured; no one makes plans Wednesday and Sunday evenings. And on the other nights, whichever parent is home has special alone time with the children that aren't out. It seems to balance out well.
Still other families accept the chaos of everyone's schedules during the week, but keep Friday nights as a sacred ritual. They pull out their very best china and the kids drink juice from wine glasses. They light candles and bring the spirit of love into their home and hearts as they welcome the weekend. Everyone feels like a "special guest" at the table. And everyone looks forward to this weekly loving connection.
No matter how crazy and busy your lives are, find a mealtime ritual that works for your family.
Appreciate the healing possibilities:
There's nothing like a laughter-filled table to release the stress of the day with people whom you love and who love you. It's a great time to hear about everyone's experience -- highs, lows, funny moments, silly seconds... One family has a unique take on the best/worst of the day: they share what their "rose" and "thorn" were that day and double up on the positive by adding a "petal" or two of sweet stories. Plus, the understanding that comes from knowing someone really listens to you -- that a family member is on your team -- can be exhilarating, cathartic and healing.
Five tips to connect at the dinner table:
1. Start dinnertime during set-up time and involve everyone -- preparing the meal, setting the table, placing food -- even the youngest can help.
2. Try to talk one at a time and ask follow-up questions after someone speaks. Play simple sharing games such as "rose/thorn" or "high/low" or "success" of the day.
3. So no one person hogs the conversation, everyone gets to speak once before the free-for-all of anyone speaks begins.
4. Express gratitude before or after every meal holding hands.
5. No one gets up from the table till the last eater is done; parents may want to linger to chat after the kids are excused.
Electronic free zone?
What's really important to you? Parents usually tell me they hate technology at the table, yet they often succumb. A boss is calling, a car pool has to be arranged, a play date has to be planned. But for 30 or 45 minutes, no texting, no emailing, no phoning won't radically shift life events. There are exceptions -- grandma is in the hospital, big sis is calling from halfway across the world, etc. -- but these are rare and can be explained and treated as such.
This is the time you really have to pay attention to what you behavior is teaching your kids. If you don't want your kids on their cell phones or playing video games on their iPad, if it's vital to keep that family time sacred, then it's an easy answer. Zero technology at the table. No excuses, rare exceptions.
Family dinners not possible on a daily basis? Six everyday activities that can also promote bonding.
1. Breakfast together; pack lunches together.
2. Drive or walk to school together in the morning with no technology in the car.
3. Send each other a text during the day to say that you are thinking of them. Or leave notes in lunch boxes.
4. Keep story time a long time -- read to your kids no matter their age as a nightly ritual; it can create lifetime loving memories.
5. Sit on the edge of your child's bed and snuggle and chat before they doze off.
6. Go to the farmer's market together on weekends - include everyone on decisions about what to buy for dinners and why.
A special thank you and appreciation to the families who contributed many of these terrific ideas. Please write and share yours.
Much of this article was prepared for a larger article for reporter Joanne Richard of Sun Media in Canada. See Joanne's complete article, "Family Dinners Can Build Teen Confidence and Reduce Obesity," here.