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Family Dinners -- Now Comes the Hard Part

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A few months ago I wrote a blog called "Prime Time for Families." This was just before Thanksgiving and we were about to embark on the easiest time of the year for paying attention to the research that says that the more families eat together, the stronger they and their individual members seem to be. There was no need for this editor of the Journal of Family Life to hassle people about having warm, family dinners. We all were having them. They were easy... and wonderful... and memorable. All good. Lots of people on HuffPost and elsewhere wrote about how nice the family gatherings were and how there was so much meaning in them. Families were doing what researchers have been telling us to do to make us all happier, more resilient, better functioning people.

Of course we had family dinners in the past 6 weeks or so. Seriously, who among us could find reasons NOT to have Thanksgiving Dinner or Christmas Dinner, or to make those special potato latkes, Kwanzaa dishes and Diwali sweets? How Grinch-like would one need to be to say to his or her family things like, "Uh, I need to eat Christmas dinner in my office so I can get that report done" or "Hey, I'm afraid I'll need to stay late at the office on November 25th. Go ahead and eat the turkey and all without me. I'll grab something on the way home." Hard to imagine! Yet, these are the very same excuses that we are going to start using once again after the last football is kicked on New Year's Day. (OK, so this year, we had a Sunday tacked on, giving us one more day to wait.)

As I said, now comes the hard part. I reported in a previous blog that research at the Emory Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) in Atlanta, and at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University demonstrates clearly that the more kids eat dinner with their families the stronger they are, the better their relationships with their parents, the better their grades in school, the less likely they are to get into drugs or other problems with the law.

Please don't make me say all this again! What the studies of family dinners do NOT say is that these good effects are a specific result of Christmas Dinner or Thanksgiving Dinner. As far as these studies are concerned, dinner is dinner. I was never really worried about all of us busy people skipping the family sit-downs on the last Thursday in November or the 25th or 26th of December. It's the other, equally important dinners, I am worried about. The hard part that I am writing about is dinner on January 5th, February 11th, March 24 and all the other plain old days that lie ahead of us until the nostalgia and the waves of family feeling that are now so quickly slipping away return once more.

Family dinners on non-special days -- like Tuesdays in April, for example -- are equally as impactful as the "easy" dinners we've been pulling off in recent weeks. However, it is much harder to make them happen. They take MORE effort, in fact, than Thanksgiving dinner. Why? No need to think of a menu for Thanksgiving or Christmas. There are traditions, structures and activities all in the holiday package. Everyone knows his or her part. The excuses used year-round for missing or foreshortening dinner are not acceptable on the holidays. No way out. (OK, except for a blizzard that traps you in an airport for three days.)

Let's look at the nature of excuses for a moment. To my mind, an excuse is a statement of priorities; accepting an excuse is an affirmation of those priorities. "I can't come to work, my child is sick," says my child has a higher priority than my job. Hard to imagine a boss quibbling with this. "I need to miss my work-out at the gym because I have a report to prepare for work tomorrow," says work takes priority over play or fitness. Hmmm... "We need to skip dinner tonight because I have a report to prepare for tomorrow." "We need to skip dinner tonight because I need to go to the gym." All statements of priorities. All common enough and, to some, understandable. However, here's the catch: having dinner is usually set too low on the list on all days except those powerhouse holidays. The sad fact is that in many busy families, almost anything serves as a reason to skip the family dinner.

What to do? We need to respect the research. The family dinners on plain old days are important. But they need not be held every night -- three family dinners a week have significant impact the research tells us; five have even greater positive effects. Try to establish family dinner nights a month in advance, or even a week. Stick to them. Make them the highest priority for those nights. The menus? The structures, the rituals? As on the holidays, these make dinners easier to implement. You can generate your own, to be sure. But, I also recommend Laurie David's book, The Family Dinner. Why? It has great family menus. There are dinnertime activities proven to be effective in maximizing the good things that come out of eating together. The book provides for those everyday mundane dinners the level of ease and structure we have for Christmas and Thanksgiving. This makes the hard part easy -- well, easier.

The New Year is a time for making resolutions that we don't usually keep. My health club is packed with new members during the month of January; by February, its back to the stalwarts. However, resolutions can be kept and one that should be on the top of all our lists is to have three or more family dinners every week between now and next Thanksgiving. Promise this to yourself; promise this to your kids; promise this to your grandchildren; promise it to your great grandchildren. Why the great-grandchildren? Because they will also be the recipients of the good that family dinners do. Every time you sit down with your family it's like throwing a stone into a quiet pond; you'll see the strongest and most immediate ripples in your children, but the ripples will continue as they move out across time. And sometimes they'll even bounce back.

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