April 5, 2006

The return of the family dinner?

The NYT detects a trend. Is this really a trend? Who really knows?

We all assume the family dinner is important, don't we? Considering how strongly people seem to believe family dinners are important, why don't we make more of a point of arranging our lives around them?

Articles on this subject always stress how hard it is to arrange the schedules. We always hear about the sports teams and the music lessons. Everybody's busy and active! They just need to settle in one place at one time, and everything will be swell. Maybe that's why everyone likes to say the family dinner is important, but they don't actually make a huge effort to ensure that it happens. That way one's rosy image of the family dinner remains intact. We're all just rushing around with our brimmingly full lives, but if we could manage to sit down together, we'd share all our wonderful stories of what we did all day and love, love, love.

(Here's an old post of mine that collects names of films with family dinner scenes. In film, the family dinner usually goes to hell.)


Truly said...

If something's really important to you, you make time for it. My family was always busy when I was growing up, but we ALWAYS had dinner together (with a few exceptions). Mom's orders.

Perhaps those movie scenes of family dinner gone sadly awry is itself a reflection of how infrequently it happens nowadays. When it isn't a family custom, everyone feels strange and formal and awkward--the perfect setting for comic hijinks.

faster said...

The family dinner is overrated. We had one every night growing up, which consisted of my dad complaining about work the whole time. And the food was bad too.

SippicanCottage said...

The NYTimes is like a retarded alien dropped in the middle of America. They stagger all around "discovering" us all, and go into their bizarro playbook, scratching their fevered braincase with their inkstained finger: "Dinner? With your family? WTF?

They've discovered that people get married, have children, and get this: eat at the same time at the same table, and, like, whoah Nellie!-talk to each other and stuff and junk.

And the NYTimes, like the weirdos they are, ask:

Richard D. Mulieri, a spokesman for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse,

to explain to them this bizarre manifestation of some sort of pathology, no doubt.

Hey, Mr. NYTimes, come on over my house, and I'll show you another room in the house. It's got a roll of paper hanging on the wall next to a porcelain bowl. Don't worry, this room won't freak you out like my dining room obviously does. The roll of paper, and what it's good for, is just like the New York Times.

Mary said...

"It's crazy, but having dinner together reinforces the family unit."

Routinely doing anything together helps reinforce the family unit. Eating with others, especially.

(But maybe even something passive like collective tv watching?)

I can see bitterness perhaps where the family unit has already been dismantled. But why deny the simple benefits of diverse family units where it still works to help connect?

I think scientific studies have shown a positive impact, while movies are not always known for representative accuracy.

Dave said...

I can see the benefit to family dinners. But with my schedule I wouldn't be able to manage one.

Then again I don't have a family with whom I live, so it's all good.

Emily said...

Good point about what can be family bonding over TV.

Growing up, we always had family dinners, and they were unpleasant. (Dad was never in a good mood.)

My happiest memories of family bonding were from watching "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," "All in the Family" and "Mission Impossible". These were the only times that my father would predictably be in a relaxed and happy mood.

Ann Althouse said...

Mary: "I can see bitterness..."

Yeah, we've noticed. You see bitterness everywhere. It must hurt. I'd suggest becoming more perceptive about what it is you're actually looking at, and not simply laying your projections out for all the world to see.

Mary said...

It was an opinion; you seemed a bit bitter again in your criticisms.

Cheer up. :) Gonna be a nice day out there and all...

Mary said...

And really, just wanted to mention the scientific studies and all, and suggest that it's ok for families to be different.

Helps you learn to tolerate disagreement...

Mary said...

(And I still think it would be rude to flip someone the bird in a Catholic Church, but I can understand where you might not get this either.) cheers

Mom2fur said...

We always ate together as a family growing up, and quite often it wasn't pleasant. My father had a temper and liked to make snide remarks about my mother's cooking. (Mom, btw, was a good cook.) When I got married and had kids, we started to sit around the table with them at dinnertime. But I made a very strict rule--no mean talk, no complaining. Dinner was to be a pleasant experience for my children--and it was. Now they are 15, 19, 21 and 23 (the three oldest are still in college so that's why they live with us) and between work and school we don't get to do this. But we go out to dinner together and it is always enjoyable. So I'd say to anyone hoping to bring back the tradition of family dinner--also make it a tradition that will someday bring back only good memories!

Ron said...

The most dysfunctional family dinner on TV happens almost every week on Gilmore Girls.

Balfegor said...

Maybe that's why everyone likes to say the family dinner is important, but they don't actually make a huge effort to ensure that it happens. That way one's rosy image of the family dinner remains intact.

My image of the family dinner is quite rosy, and when I grew up, we almost always ate together. Or at least, my mother, myself, and my siblings did, as my father not infrequently had to work late. But he dined with us quite regularly too. On weekends, we often all breakfasted or brunched together -- donuts, sometimes, or bacon and eggs.

Balfegor said...

And the food was bad too.

In my childhood, the food was excellent. "Home cooking" still has extremely positive connotations for me, and I ask my parents for recipes all the time.

When it isn't a family custom, everyone feels strange and formal and awkward--the perfect setting for comic hijinks.

And we had formal dinners from time to time too. Or more-formal, on the good china, with the silver, and in the dining room proper (as opposed to the kitchen or the porch dining tables). This was for special occasions -- holidays, birthdays, people returning from abroad or from school on holiday, anniversaries, and miscellaneous other celebrations.

My, what an idyllic upbringing I had!

SippicanCottage said...

Mary, I'm here from the Strunk and White style police, and I'm here to help.

When affecting a "breezy" style in your correspondence, it's usually best that the breeze does not appear to be emanating from your fundament.

By all means, carry on.

SteveR said...

I almost always had a family dinner growing up and it was generally pleasant and a good thing.

With three kids we struggle as time has gone on to have them, but we make a point of trying to several times a week, at least. I know that there would be almost no other time we would all be in the same place so we make a point to take advantage of that.

Heck if your family is just another task on your list, it probably is not worth the effort.

Maxine Weiss said...


Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

Rats !!!! Curses!

Oh well.

I was trying to link to Norman Rockwell's famous 1943 illustration "Four Freedoms".....which was the whole family gathered around the dinnertable eagerly anticipating the Thanksgiving turkey.

....and the fury and uproar that picture causes today!

Peace, Maxine

Aspasia M. said...

The NYTimes is like a retarded alien dropped in the middle of America. They stagger all around "discovering" us all, and go into their bizarro playbook, scratching their fevered braincase with their inkstained finger: "Dinner? With your family? WTF?

Oh - I laughed reading this. What's up with these "lifestyle" stories from the NYT? Remember the bizarre story about the nanny who blogged?

My family had dinner together every night, except for Fridays or Saturdays when my parents went out on a date. It wasn't a big deal, just a time to talk and eat. And it's a good way to make sure teenagers eat some fruits and vegetables.

bill said...

Norman Rockwell's famous 1943 illustration "Four Freedoms"...and the fury and uproar that picture causes today!

There's a fury and uproar over this picture?

Joan of Arc said...

Honestly, the reporters at the NYT really ought to get out downtown Manhattan every now and then. This story is too hilarious, as though millions of people don't eat together. It's like the reporter has been watching television and that KFC commercial, assuming that most families go out for fast food all the time. Except when they bring it home.

I'm waiting for another "college admission angst" story. Surely there's another one in works at the NYT.

reader_iam said...

Could there be some sort of link between the demise of family dinners and the weight of children, who now appear mostly to "graze" as their parents do?

And between an apparent lack of training in table manners among the older children?

And haven't there been studies somewhere at some point that show a correlation, if not a causation, between kids whose families regularly eat together at dinner time and issues of behavior, etc.?

I try to eat at least one lunch a week at the large day-care/pre-school on which I'm on the board, which serves meals family style (in the classic sense). In many, many cases, these are the only meals the kids eat that aren't consumed in front of a TV (often alone) or while driving down the road. I think that's sort of sad. What's sweet is that they really eat it up--and I don't mean the food (though they do that, too). I mean the interaction, the give and take of conversation, and, yes, even the etiquette of it. And we learn so much about the kids and their view of the world in this way.

I don't think this is such a small thing, and I hope it's true.

(Of course, different strokes for different folks, but still ...).

Joan said...

Balfegor, your family dinner experiences sound just like mine. We loved it then, and we all still love it now when we can get together for a holiday or special occasion. Everyone in my family is a great cook, and everyone pitches in on both prep and clean-up, and it's just a really nice experience to spend time with people producing something for everyone to enjoy.

That's not to say my family is perfect, but one thing we know how to do is put a meal on the table.

Now, with my own kids, they are still small enough (5, 7, 9) that we eat all together every night, unless it's a Date Night (few and far between, what with the cost of babysitters.) The kids learn table manners and the rules of polite conversation. When we go out to dinner, I don't have to worry about them a bit.

The best thing is that they're finally getting old enough to appreciate my cooking, and they're all eager to help out in the kitchen themselves. Food is way too important an aspect of our lives to leave in someone else's control. Everyone should know how to put a meal together.

Nick said...

Here is a highly recommended link to a law professor's blog documenting the wonder of, and sometimes difficulty with, having a family dinner every night.


lindsey said...

I've seen studies indicating that kids who regularly eat family dinners do better at school, graduate college, stay out of trouble, etc. Whether this is a result of the dinner or the type of family to plan every day to eat dinner together is up in the air. Maybe planning a dinner and sticking to it would make you a better family?

Maxine Weiss said...

The crock pot killed family dinners. That, and TV trays.

Also, the big box (Costco) stores aren't big on home furnishings, table settings etc...

Setting the table used to be a major event, the Vera placemats, cloth napkins and napkin rings....nobody does that anymore, not even for Thanksgiving!

Maybe fondues and flambes are bringing people back. Cherries jubilee, and flamed chicken piquant---I'm stuck in a time warp! Those sorts of dishes do forces everyone to be at the table, though....and be on their best behavior.

Peace, Maxine

Chris said...

The article says "We're not back to Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best..." We we ever there? Did these times really exist except in TV? These were charicatures of 50's family life ideals with seriously polite children and suited fathers smoking pipes while mom made dinner. Why are people always trying to reach fictionalized ideals?