The Secrets of Sharing a Family Meal, with Bruce Feiler

Research shows that eating together brings a family closer and helps children develop. The problem is many Americans don't do it.

Bruce Feiler: If there’s one thing that all families have been told it’s have family dinner with your kids. And the truth is there’s a lot of research that says it’s great for children. The problem is that many people can’t do it. A third of us are not doing it regularly. Americans ranked 33 out of 35 countries in terms of having family meals together. But dig deeper into the research and it’s quite revealing and actually quite hopeful for parents. It turns out there’s only ten minutes of conversation in any mealtime. The rest is taken up with take your elbows off the table and pass the ketchup.

But it’s that ten minutes that really matters. So if you can have family dinner, fantastic. But if you can’t you don’t have to feel guilty or doomed if mom has to work late or junior has a sports practice. You can time shift family dinner – another idea taken from outside families that can help families. So have family breakfast. For a bedtime snack at 8:30. Even one meal – one on the weekends can have the same benefits.

Let me mention just a couple of things you can do to reduce stress at the dinner table and a couple of things you can do to increase communication.

First of all let’s talk about siblings who are fighting at the table, okay. Sibling rivalry is a huge problem in families. As the father of twins I certainly know that. And the research shows if you give your kids a task to do, say ten minutes before they come to the meal time, that will remind them that they can work together and they actually get along. And that will have a halo effect and carry over to the meal time and reduce stress. So actually having kids set the table or help you prepare dinner – even a few minutes before dinner can actually make the dinner itself less stressful and more bonding.

But the research clearly shows that families should spend less time worrying about what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right. So what can you talk about at dinner that’s gonna help your family. Here’s two quick ideas. One, play a game called bad and good. Have everybody go around, say what happened bad to them and then go around and say what happened good to them. And here’s the key. The parents should do it too.

There’s something about the actual task of parents showing that they have problems too. That they have challenges – things that they’re solving in real time that gives kids confidence that when they have a challenge they can overcome that challenge also.

The second thing you can do – and maybe even should do is talk about your family history. This is my single favorite tip from The Secrets of Happy Families. Researchers at Emory gave kids a Do You Know test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Where your parents went to high school? An aunt or an uncle who had an illness that they overcame. Kids who knew more about their family history had a higher sense of self-esteem and a greater belief that they could control their own lives. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being. And as the researcher explained to me, these kids have a sense that they’re part of a longer narrative. A big family that goes back generations.

There are three types of family narratives – ascending. We started with nothing. We worked hard. We have a lot. Descending – we have a lot. There was a storm, a war, a recession. We lost a lot. Or an oscillating narrative – we have ups and we have downs. And kids who understand that they come from an oscillating family history know that when they hit a rough patch – and it’s gonna happen – they know, “Hmm, my aunt, my grandfather, my parents pushed through. I can push through, too.”

One of the number one ways I’ve changed as a parent as a result of working on The Secrets of Happy Families is being less afraid to talk about my own failures and shortcomings with my kids. If we just talk about our successes, we prepare them for a world where they’re gonna only have successes. But they’re not gonna only have successes. You want to prepare them for the difficult times and how to get through them.

There’s a lot that’s conspiring against dinnertime right now with families. So here’s a couple of pitfalls to avoid. Pitfall number one is that devices intrude. Mom gets an email. Dad has to get up to take a phone call. No devices at dinner. There is a sacred time – 10, 15, 20 minutes where we’re gonna be together. The one exception – you can Google at dinner. If a question comes up and you want to know the answer, pull out your device and Google it as long as you’re teaching somebody something that can advance the conversation. Just don’t take a peek at your email.

Pitfall number two – parents do too much of the talking. The research shows parents do two-thirds of the talking at dinnertime. If that what happens you’re not taking enough advantage of the time together. So try to let your kids speak at least 50 percent of the time.

Research shows that eating together brings a family closer and helps children develop. The problem is many Americans don't do it—the United States ranks 33rd out of 35 countries. Despite this, Bruce Feiler explains how you don't necessarily need to all sit rank and file, elbows on the table, in order to experience the benefits of sharing a meal. The secret is communication.

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