March 2009 - Vol. 28

Be Not Afraid Eat Together!

Want to avoid high risk behavior among teens? 
Here's some practical advice for parents

by Gordy DeMarais


It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the – modern world, especially for parents raising children today. Hardly a week goes by without the news warning of yet another threat to a child’s wellbeing. Everything is dangerous: the crib, bicycles, the paint on toys, the park. Even worse is parental paranoia for their teens! Modern parents have more to fear than their own parents did: internet porn, AIDs, date rape, rampant campus drinking, drug usage. What's a mother (or dad) to do!!!

Eat Dinner!
Yup! Eat dinner together as a family. Studies by Tufts University, Boston College and the University of Minnesota show there is a very high correlation between family dinner and the avoidance of high-risk behavior among teens. If you want your sons to avoid alcohol or drug abuse – eat dinner together. If you want your daughters to avoid immoral sexual behavior – eat dinner together. If you want your children to do well in school – eat dinner together. This is more important than any warning you can give. 

As a parent of teens (three currently, some done, more to come), I find this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to have a consistent family dinner when children are young and mom and dad can pretty much dictate the family schedule, it’s quite another to fight for it when sports, and music lessons, and jobs and friends, and… begin to fill the imaginations and the schedules of our teenage children. I chose the word “fight” intentionally. Keeping to regular family dinner won’t come naturally in a house full of teens. 

Make dinner a priority
Mom and dad must decide that family dinner is a priority, and we are going to make it happen. Now, it may be that we need to learn to be a bit creative and flexible in how we get the family dinner to happen. We could simply tell our teen children that family dinner is at this time every night, and we require you to be there, and we won’t allow anything to interfere. I suspect for most families, that is a losing proposition. A necessary strategy in relating to our teens is P.Y.B. (Pick Your Battles). The battle for family dinner is one in my view we ought to pick, but if we pick it in such a way that we are also picking the no job, no sports, etc., battle, this is in my experience an ineffective overall strategy. So, while maintaining the priority of the family dinner, we can be flexible with the time. In our family we sometimes have three different start times for dinner in one week! It takes a bit of communication but it’s worth it.

Getting to the dinner table together (whether it be at 5:15 or 8:00) is half the battle. Now let’s talk about the other half. What do we do when we get there? 

Here Are a Few Ideas
Say grace well. Better yet, connect family prayer with the meal. Sing a song, pray a psalm, do some petitions, say the Lord's Prayer, then bring out the food and give thanks to the Lord.

A dinner that’s worth doing together requires a bit of order. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway (because teens often have a remarkable ability to forget the 12 previous years of training), we should expect some basic manners at the dinner table. You know, things like sitting down at the same time, saying please and thank you, waiting to eat until everyone is served, keeping to one conversation at a time, passing food rather than tossing it, refraining from eating before grace, not leaving the table during the meal without permission, ending together. 

These basic manners go a long way in creating at least an opportunity for some healthy family interaction around the dinner table. Expect a certain amount of order. But avoid the temptation to approach the dinner as mainly a time to enforce order and manners. Here again we need some patience and flexibility. If our teens experience us as mainly correcting (I think they might use the term “nagging”) them about behavior at the dinner table, they likely will develop a negative attitude towards the family meal.

Take the opportunity to allow everyone to share something about their day. We often do this in a fairly deliberate way. I recommend that dad take the lead here. Dad should come to the dinner table understanding that leading the family dinner time is a primary way that he engages his children and leads his family. Invite our children to share but don’t “get on their case” when they don’t offer much. Some nights they won’t, and my experience is that if we press our teens, they become entrenched and stubborn. If we simply respect them and move on, our chances of their participation the next night increases. Conversation can also take the form of discussion of current events. Mom and dad can also use the family dinner to give some simple instruction on faith or virtue or Christian living.

Not every meal needs to be a profound personal encounter with other family members or a deep profound conversation. Sometimes we just laugh. More often just spending the time basically well goes a long way. 

Eat dinner together. It’s one of the most effective elements in raising great children and a better alternative than being afraid or watching TV.

Hints from God?
Eating dinner together may not be one of the ten commandments, but God gives us some clear hints about the role of dinner: the Last Supper was a dinner. Heaven is a banquet, a dinner. Get the hint? Family dinner is important.

[Gordy DeMarais is the Executive Director for St. Paul's Outreach (SPO) and a coordinator of the Community of Christ the Redeemer in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Gordy and his wife Teresa have six children.]

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