Dinnertime is far more than the time when the family eats dinner! It is a time when children learn tremendous life lessons. Let’s examine a few examples of the profound effects of the nightly ritual we call “dinnertime.”
Routines Help Provide Security and Stability
Some families have dinner together every night of the week. In such homes, children enjoy the benefits of the predictable, regular ritual. Having dinner together is something the kids can count on. It structures the evening into “before dinnertime” activities and “after dinnertime” activities. It is a time when everyone will come together as a family, providing all the emotional security that family togetherness provides. In some homes, the family comes together for dinner only on the weekend or on selected nights of the week. Here too, the predictability and dependability of those particular dinner commitments help children feel grounded and stabilized. This is particularly true when children are shifting in and out of different households due to the divorce of their parents. Landing in a place that has a regular dinner ritual helps that place feel like a home. It reduces the feeling of chaos.
In homes where everyone eats at different times and rarely sits down together, the benefits of ritual and communal eating are lost. Children lose out on the stability and security that a regular family dinnertime can provide.
Dinnertime Teaches Children How People Get Along (or Don’t)
In some fortunate homes, dinnertime is a loving time. People share the news of the day. There is laughter, empathy, and discussion. Kids learn how to communicate, following the model of their parents. They learn how to show respect for others, take turns, listen, support each other and care. In such homes, parents are often parenting in an “authoratative” parenting style – warm and loving, with firm boundaries. When things go wrong at the table (i.e. one child bothers another), they handle the situation calmly and purposefully – effectively estabishing the rules for proper table behavior.
In some homes, parents haven’t got as much control of the situation as they really need. The children may be a bit (or a lot) more out of control, as a consequence. Perhaps there is bickering, teasing, or outright fighting at the table. Maybe the parents try to manage the situation with shouting, threats and punishments. Or perhaps the parents are the ones doing the bickering and arguing. Either way, the feeling of the dinner hour is tense, chaotic and unpleasant. Not only are children NOT learning how to communicate in healthy ways, but they are actually learning how to communicate in unhealthy ways!
Dinnertime Teaches Values
In some homes, parents teach their children to wait for their parents to start eating before they start to eat – as a sign of respect and appreciation. They might teach their kids good manners – to ask for items to be passed instead of reaching across the table themselves, to say please and thank, to ask to be excused, to thank the “cook” and so on. In such homes, dinnertime is used to teach children how to behave in socially acceptable ways. In other homes, anything goes. Etiquette is not on the agenda. Kids eat with their mouths open, talk with their mouths full, grab with their hands.
In some homes, children are taught to eat what’s on their plate. In other homes, they’re taught to eat until they feel full. Some kids are forced to eat what is put before them, while others are allowed to have something else to eat if they don’t like what is being served. However parents decide to manage food issues teaches kids a “philosophy of food.” Consider the following examples: “In our house we went hungry if we wouldn’t eat dinner.” or “In our house, we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we ate dinner.” or “In our house, Mother would make 5 different dinners – one for each of us.” or “In our house, you could have cheese on bread for dinner every night if you wanted to.” These experiences become embedded in the child’s memory banks and come to haunt him when he becomes a parent. He’ll either want to do what his parents did or absolutely refuse to do it their way. In either event, the lessons of childhood dinnertimes tend to last a lifetime.