Family Meals Matter: Staying Connected (page 2)
Staying connected isn't easy. In many families each member goes off in a different direction: work, school, after-school and social programs, and many other activities. Statistics tell us that Americans spend 40 minutes a week playing with their children, and members of working couples talk to one another an average of only 12 minutes a day. Kids spend more and more time in after school activities-sports, hobbies, clubs, and religious instruction. Fitting in family time is becoming harder and harder. In the past 20 years structured sports time has doubled, family dinners have declined 33% and family vacations have decreased 28%. As parents are working harder and longer and kids' schedules are more and more crowded, there is a decline in ordinary family togetherness such as talking during mealtime or going to family celebrations.
Are kids being short-changed? Are they missing out on the experiences that family connections provide? Studies tell us that depression, anxiety, substance abuse among children and adolescents have increased significantly. Is there a connection? The good news is that parents can make a difference. Numerous polls have shown that teens want more, not less, time with their parents and value their parents' opinions. Studies also show us that parent involvement has positive effects on adolescent tobacco use, depression, eating disorders, academic achievement, and other problems
What is parent-child connectedness?
It's an emotional and mutual bond based on warmth and trust that starts early and has a powerful impact on a child's development. As the child grows, connectedness happens in different ways. In the early years the parent-child connection means touching, feeding, guiding beginning language and social/emotional development. Connections keep expanding and changing and by the pre- and teen-age years connection means sharing thoughts and ideas, problem-solving together, respecting autonomy. During these years parents and adolescents find the delicate balance between staying connected and letting go.
Keeping connectedness ongoing-start with family meals
Family meals are becoming a lost ritual, and since their benefits are extensive, it's important to get them back. A report issued by CASA (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) found that teens that have two or fewer family dinners per week are twice as likely to smoke daily and to get drunk monthly compared to teens who have family dinners five times per week
The menu in family meals may not be varied but the shared time, even if it doesn't happen every night, is invaluable. As family members take off in different directions, sharing meals can be a time to regroup. Family meals provide a safe place where everyone can talk about their day, listen to each other, and try out ideas. Meal time is not only about food; it's a time when family stories and jokes are told, when a sense of family values is instilled. Family meals can serve also as an emotional clearing-house and support system when someone's down or excited or angry or in a quandary.
The following are some tips on making family meals special:
- Communication starts before meal time and continues afterward. Have kids help in preparations and in clearing and cleanup, not presented as a chore but as part of a group effort. Their participation makes them feel valued and respected.
- Avoid criticism, and passing judgment. Meal time is not a time for complaints or for too many questions.
- Specific, non-judgmental remarks or questions can get kids started. They'll learn to take turns and listen to others, valuable social skills in many situations.
- Parents too can share something interesting about their day. When parents talk about their experiences, they're providing models of behavior and sharing of values.
- Meal time is a good time to learn manners-setting the table, taking turns, passing food and other customs can become habits.
- Family meals don't always have to be in the same place of at the same time; lunch or brunch or picnics work just as well.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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