Before kids and when they were very small, I used to fear the teen years. Visions of my sweet cuddling tots turned goth, rude teens hiding in their rooms with ear-buds in danced through my brain. Now, with 2, nearly three teens at home I no longer fear. Their reality is a thing of wonder to me. They are not rude. Quiet at times but, not rude. I have to pull out the ear buds all too often but, they do not sulk behind closed doors. And most reassuring, they are still quite cuddly – when they want to be.
Given this reassuring state, I can be taken aback when they momentarily act like “real” teens.
I have held family dinnertime sacred in my house. Even through change, upheaval and redefinition of family itself, dinners together come first. Last night at dinner I asked the kids why they thought dinners together were so important. My middle child said with a snarky tone, “because they keep us connected at the heart.” Her hands acted this out with fingers first intertwined and then in the shape of a heart. Eyes rolled. But then, thankfully there came a smile.
The evidence continues to pour in. Eating meals with family is good for kids. In 2010 a study of nearly 9,000 4 year-old children published in the journal Pediatrics concluded (in part) that young children who regularly ate the evening meal as a family had a significantly lower prevalence of obesity. Other studies recently published in the journal Obesity have supported the idea that teenagers who eat with their family are less likely to be obese at baseline. Then last month yet another group of researchers published data showing that teens who eat with their families have higher well-being, lower depression and fewer risk-taking behaviors. More work has shown frequent family meals were significantly associated with a lower likelihood of adolescent alcohol and tobacco use. In the May 2010 issue of Journal of Health Psychology teens’ experience at the mealtimes was found to be connected with this decreased rate of substance use.
Looking at all of this evidence makes it very clear. We need to eat dinner with our kids for the sake of their health. We need to cultivate ways to make our dinnertime conversations meaningful, interesting, thought-provoking. Sure, some of the research shows a benefit to simply sitting around the table together but, you might as well have fun while you sit there. Around my table we have through the years talked about almost everything. Any topic is acceptable if brought up with good intention and true curiosity. Politics, sex, religion? We have covered them all. We have played games. I have been repeatedly accused of being a pain about their manners. There have been giggles, anger and tears. We rate the meals so I know whether to cook the recipes again. Lots of meals have been rejected. And instead of cooking, many pizzas have been ordered.
Now with so many sports teams, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and social engagements that my head spins keeping it all straight, we don’t all sit together every night. But, whomever is at home sits and talks. Sometimes I wait up and eat with the late-after-practice arrivers. Sundays we all meet – even if other invitations have to be turned down. I’d like to think this commitment has paid off through the years.
My eldest can be a bit quiet. I generalize this into fitting his teen boy status – they all keep to them selves a bit don’t they? Once not too long ago, I challenged him on his laconic nature. I asked if he would talk to me when it really mattered? He stopped, looked at me and said yes. I asked why? How could I be sure? He explained that he knew I could handle talking about anything. After all, we do just that on any given Sunday around the table.