After the birth of my first child, my wife and I decided that it was time to move to a new setting where work was less hectic. My previous employment frequently had me working 6 days a week and late hours. This meant that I often only saw my new daughter once a week or for a goodnight kiss right before lights out. In this vein, one of the best parts of being a small town pastor has been the opportunity to eat daily meals with my wife and child at the dining room table. This was simply not possible in our previous setting. I savor the experience not just because it involves spending time with my wife and daughter, but also because its benefits stretch far into the future. Numerous studies have demonstrated that children who eat meals at the dinner table with their parents 5 times a week are five times less likely to use illegal drugs or alcohol. They also have larger vocabularies, do better in school, and have fewer behavior problems. The regular family meal isn’t a magic trick caused by emulating Norman Rockwell paintings. Instead, it is a product of sitting and talking to each other. It’s a logical outcome of a behavior pattern.
In addition, it is a pattern demonstrated in scripture when discussing the manner in which the family of God operates. In Acts, we see the early church gathering for meals daily, largely because eating together as a family is a somewhat intimate activity. We also see Jesus teaching important lessons and engaging in fellowship at meals with groups of people. His final meeting with his disciples before the crucifixion took place over dinner. His first extended meeting with them after the resurrection happened over breakfast. The Lord’s Supper is a modified ceremony from the Jewish faith, the passover meal. The passover was only one of many meal-centered religious observances the Jewish people engaged in. Holidays, sacrifices, and all sorts of other activities were surrounded by meals. This is not because of a supernatural spiritual quality associated with eating. Rather, it is because eating together is a basic act of community. Community behaviors encourage close relationships and interpersonal openness.
During my 12 years of working with adolescents professionally, I have heard countless parents lament that they do not know how to talk to their teenagers or that their teenagers don’t tell them anything. This is because teenagers go through stages of rebellion and fighting for independence that put a crimp in natural communication with parents. The way to improve your odds of not having this happen in your family is long-term effort toward building bridges of communication. Those bridges become a pattern of communication that tends to endure the storm of adolescent angst. The dinner table is an obvious time for this, but it is certainly not the only one. Father-daughter date nights, father-son fishing trips, family game nights, and any other opportunities to sit and talk will do the trick. Creating the opportunity for family interaction on a daily basis is the beginning of effort toward ensuring good communication with your children.
The second major component is teaching them to express themselves. It’s hard to grasp that children are not born expressing their thoughts and feelings. However, the reality is that self-expression is a skill that develops over time. Parents can encourage development of these skills by modeling them and asking questions. Children learn communication patterns largely from their parents. They emulate what they see. If you talk and share with them, they will learn to talk and share with you. This will pay dividends during the frustrated and angst-filled teenage years when they really need to talk things through. Asking children questions encourages them to share their thoughts and experiences. It teaches them to share thoughts/feelings that they will not instinctively share. In addition, it demonstrates interest in the life of your child. They will notice that interest and they will thrive on it. Nothing is more important to children than their parents. When parents demonstrate interest in their children, it means the world to them. This will also pay in the long run when that cute child is a fuming teenager and you’re trying to get them to talk it out or hoping that they will come to you with serious problems and major decisions.
This topic is important to consider because the family meal is becoming an endangered species. Families are exceedingly busy. Sports, extracurricular activities, and long work days have made arranging a family meal difficult. This means that in order to make it happen, it must be a priority. It is also necessary to practice the behavior from an early age. A recurring pattern can quickly become a tradition that is dear to family.
I wrote this article for publication in our local newspaper 2 years ago. It has been edited and partially rewritten for this blog posting. It originally appeared in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 8/1/12.