They’re everywhere, like a scene out of a bad sci-fi horror flick.
Under beds, behind couches, wedged between seats of SUVs. No, I’m not
talking about invading aliens. I’m talking about Polly Pocket, G.I. Joe
and the rest of the fast-food toy family! So rampant, in fact, are
these plastic playthings that studies show one in three toys received
by an American child is delivered via a drive-thru window.
the preponderance of Happy Meals in modern kids’ lives represents far
more than an onslaught of cheap imported action figures. It represents
the demise of the old-fashioned family dinner.
Just how close
to brontosaurus status is the family dinner? So close that in 2001, the
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) and Coca-Cola
teamed up to launch an annual “Family Day,” designed to encourage
families to sit down and eat dinner together on the fourth Monday in
The government even provided a list of tips and suggestions for
parents on facilitating this annual event: eat dinner together; during
dinner, turn off the TV, and talk and listen to each other; involve the
entire family in planning and cooking the meal.
any older generation would surely laugh at a government issued annual
family dinner prescription,” say the researchers at Emory University’s
MARIAL Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual In American Life, whose
studies on the importance of family dinners and storytelling have
attracted the attention of national publications, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Newsweek.
‘helpful guidelines’ and ‘15 tips’ on how to enjoy family meals on a
regular basis would seem as absurd to some as a manual instructing
Americans on how to get dressed.”
Yet it seems that such a
specific decree is exactly what modern families need. Statistics show
that kids today spend double the time they did a decade ago doing
schoolwork and taking part in organized activities. In other words,
who’s got time to gather the gang for a hot-dog hoedown when you’re
schlepping from school to tutoring to piano to soccer to kiddie stress
Family dinners are nice, you may be
thinking. But government mandates, major corporate involvement,
research centers devoted almost exclusively to studying them — isn’t it
all a tad extreme?
It certainly might appear that eating a plate
of pasta with our kids is an insignificant event in the scheme of
things, but a plethora of recent research suggests that simple family
dinners may in fact be among our most powerful parenting tools toward
ensuring our children’s present and future well-being.
show that kids whose families have regular meals together tend to have
higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher
resilience in the face of adversity (according to a 2003 Emory
University study by Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush).
other researchers found family dinners to be the single most
significant defense against smoking, drinking, illegal drug use,
experimentation with sex, even fistfights among children.
other studies indicate regular family mealtimes are linked with kids
who are more emotionally content, work harder and perform better in
school, have better social skills and healthier eating habits.
the most glorious rewards of the family dinner, however, are those that
can’t be measured: the happy buzz of stories passing between parent and
child; kids wrapped securely in the familiar comforts of home.
family dinners progressively disappear from the modern kid’s radar
screen, experts fear so too will their bountiful benefits.
of the most marvelous aspects of Jewish tradition is its ability to
guide, protect and strengthen us at times when we need it most.
if our forefathers could see eons into the future — knowing their
ancestors would one day be faced with the invasion of the Happy Meal
toy — they too gave us a prescription for a family dinner.
instead of designating the fourth Monday in September for this
gastronomic gathering, they mandated that we share an enjoyable,
resilience-building, self-esteem-fostering, social skill-enhancing,
nutritionally advantageous, spiritually uplifting family dinner every
single Friday night.
And we can bet it’s no coincidence that studies show one family dinner a week is just enough to put the magic into motion.
our sages clearly knew, and researchers are only beginning to document,
the weekly Shabbat dinner is far more than challah, baked chicken and
matzo ball soup. It is a vehicle for releasing our kids from the
dangerous clutches of Ronald McDonald. It is a means of keeping our
families safe, sane and happy in a stressful, frenetically paced
It is a G-d-given tool for ensuring our children’s future—our future—is as warm and bright as the glowing Sabbath candles.
(For more information on the importance of family dinners, check out the MARIAL Web site.)
SHARON DUKE ESTROFF
Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? (Random House,
2007). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including
Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Woman's Day. Her popular Undercover Mom Blog on Net Family News
gives digital immigrant parents timely, straightforward advice on raising digital native kids.