The dinner table is more than just a battleground over the last meatball in the dish, a place where picky eaters struggle to get through their final few peas, or where hungry teens devour enough food to keep them full for the week – it is a place families can get together at the end of every day and chat over a meal, debate, question and talk about their lives – connect with one another away from technology and other distractions.
Young boys are bombarded with constant access to updates, news and social media posts throughout any given day. Boys need to know there is a place for them to retreat from this constant input from their phones, tablets etc . – that place can be the family dinner table.
A number of international research studies have revealed the impact the routine use of the “family dinner table” can have on children and teens, in terms of their ability to develop resilience, self-confidence and positive relationships.
As Growing Great Boys (2008) author Ian Grant suggests the dinner table should provide a forum where children can unload, share jokes, be “dusted down and picked up, given some adult perspective and wisdom and sent out to face their world again – strengthened and supported.”
“Around the dinner table, your boys can debate ideas, learn how to use their brain as a sieve not just a sponge, enjoy sharing their life and discuss with you, the adults, the big questions of life,” Grant writes.
The Family Dinner Project is a movement in the US, backed by researchers at Harvard University, which aims to promote the importance of spending quality time with family at the dinner table.
“Over the past 15 years, research has shown what parents have known for a long time; sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members,” the Project states on its website.
“Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviours parents want for their children; higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem… we also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.”
Harvard Medical School associate professor of clinical psychology and author of Home for Dinner Dr Anne Fishel says sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the “brain, body and spirit” – and the menu is irrelevant.
Dr Fishel says research showed dinnertime conversation boosted the vocabulary of young children, more so than being read aloud to on a daily basis – this boost in vocabulary had flow on effects on reading skills development and overall ability.
She says older children also greatly benefit from spending time with their family at the dining table.
“For school age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art,” she claims.
“But all bets are off if the TV is on during dinner.”
Dr Fishel questions what is so “magical” about the family dinner table.
“In most industrialised countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch. So dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other,” she says.
“This daily mealtime connection is like a seatbelt for travelling the potholed road of childhood and adolescence and all its possible risky behaviours.”
She says quality time at the dinner table is key; with small positive experiences daily gaining momentum and extending to nourishment of a stronger relationship away from the table.