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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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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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