Saturday, October 5, 2013

Family meal times - more than just nutrition.


Recently I read an article heralding the return of family TV viewing time! Apparently we’ve been through an era where seemingly “everyone in the family” had a TV in their own room and consequently family viewing time had gone the way of the dinosaur: but not so apparently! Now we have to thank the ever present tablets - not those of the pharmaceutical variety but rather the electronic ones - that allow each family member to watch the family wide screen whilst following friends on Facebook or, miracle of miracles, actually reading a book ...on their iPad that is.

You may gather by the tone in my voice that I am perhaps a tad cynical about such amazing advances in human interactions, but just call me old fashioned, but when it comes to spending time with family, watching TV together doesn’t come very high up my list of things to do together. Don’t get me wrong, I am a total convert to the electronic age because it’s opened up so many new horizons and spaces, but the downside is that so many of those spaces have been filled with total and absolute ... well .. rubbish.

But even the suggestion that families congregating to view a common TV is important news, and tells me that family still has a huge part to play in our society. Family is not just a group of people living together, it’s also the time when we create so many templates for our children’s future in health, education and value systems and once that period of time has passed, unfortunately we cannot go back and easily fix up the mistakes we made. And realizing that family life has such a big impact on future health is why I’m a big advocate of family meal times.

There is no doubt that we live in a frenetic era far different from earlier generations, and that’s perhaps a reflection of the far higher living standards and expectations that we now enjoy. But with the need to have a nice home and a nice car - in order to provide the best education we can for our little people, this also means that we need the cash to pay for these things and as a result, where there are two parents, both often have to work, and where there is only one the pressures are even greater - and creating the time for a daily family meal together can turn out to be a major juggling act between all the demands that young parents face. But when it is done, then the benefits are huge.

Where families frequently sit down to eat together,  the children tend to eat more vegetables and are less likely to be obese, and if obesity can be avoided then so too can all the health complications that come with it. But physical health is not the whole story. Family meals are not just about the food that we eat, there is a process that has to occur in order to prepare the food and prepare the table - and by involving the children in these activities they start to “own” and be involved in the process of service as well of being recipients of the good deeds of others.

Family meal times are an occasion where that unit of people - whatever the composition by gender, race or religion - sit and share their daily activities within the boundaries of that particularly family unit’s “family rules”. These rules are often unspoken - such as telling the truth, being kind, no bad language and not fighting or shouting at each other - whilst others may base their family rules on the Judeo-Christian ethic that has survived over 2000 years and of which GK Chesterton famously once said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and largely left untried” - which I suspect also applies to most other major world religions too!  By having such a set of family rules each person is then subject to them .. including the parents. And this can have unexpected and yet positive benefits for everyone: for example, when one of the parents has bent the rules - it might be when a child is unjustly shouted at by a parent - then at the family meal time, if the innocent party feels secure enough to point out the injustice, this can provide the occasion for the parent to apologize for getting it wrong and asking their son or daughter for forgiveness. This is a crucial lesson for a child to learn at an early age and helps them understand and accept personal responsibility for their actions - and how sorrow and forgiveness can heal an emotional injury at source and not allow it to fester into chronic guilt or resentment.

All parents of teenagers know that the teenage years are the years of chaos - and it really is not surprising as the teenage brain is continuing to make new connections during a time when their bodies are physically changing, and at the same time surging with adolescent hormones - a guaranteed recipe for long sullen pauses or inexplicable explosive reactions. If all parents were to realize that teenage development equates with chaos not entirely of their own making, then life for both parents and teenagers could be more serene. Which brings me back to family meal times.
One of the great joys of family life is that just about everyone there is of a different age group, whilst at school for 12 years of their lives, our young people are put in classes where everyone is of the same age and at the same level of life experience. Whilst preparing for, eating and cleaning up after the family meal, the group has to cooperate with people of different ages and life experience. So when the teenager says to the parent “You don’t get it do you?” ... well perhaps they do actually get it better than the teenager thinks! The important thing is to allow the youngsters to express their thoughts in a loving secure atmosphere, within the family rules, and not get a long lecture on why they are wrong, and how they should get their act together.
Family meal times allow for parents to hear whats happened to their children during that day or week and try to understand what outside influences they’ve been under when away from home. It also calls on each member to learn how to listen, as well as to have the confidence to speak out to. And it’s also that important time when issues can be completed and not carried on as hurts for weeks, months or even years. Unfortunately, children still grow up in dysfunctional families where parents continue to pass on the negative ideas and habits they learned from their parents and which still stunt their own children’s emotional development for life.
All of this is so important for the mental health of our young people as about 1 in 3 of the whole population will experience some form of mood disorder during the course of their lives, but if they have experienced the benefits of life in a stable, happy family unit, they will be better prepared to deal with such challenges if and when they arise.
Family meals are not easy to organize in these so called modern times, but they are an essential part of a healthy society - both physically and mentally - so the effort to make it happen as often as possible will be more than rewarded with happy memories and a healthier future generation.

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