Friday, September 30, 2011

Dinner conversation

A recent study from Columbia University states that “making time for a nightly family dinner is one of the most important things parents can do to keep their teens away from drugs and alcohol.” Family dinners also lower a teen’s risk of developing an eating disorder, according to the study. Meanwhile, a nearby community has created an online initiative called the Family Dinner Project to encourage families to sit down to dinner together.

This is something parents hear over and over again: it’s beneficial to sit down and eat as a family as often as possible. No one disputes that the combination of kids’ activities and parents’ work schedules and community commitments make it difficult for most families today to do this every night of the week, but we hear often that the benefits are real and measurable if we can try for at least a few nights a week.

This past summer, I became somewhat exasperated by the challenge of planning family meals. Tim (as a baseball player) and Rick (as a coach) had games or practices over the dinner hour four evenings a week. On the evenings they didn’t have baseball, I often planned short getaways for the kids and me. Sometimes, we were home but Rick was at work. Sometimes Holly wanted to attend a kids’ event at the library. And then there were those evenings when some of us had stopped for a late-afternoon ice cream cone on the way back from swimming or a bike ride and weren’t really hungry for dinner anyway.

But now it’s fall, and the predictable rhythm of the school day once again drives our schedule. Fall baseball takes up only one night a week, not four. We tend to be at home doing homework, rather than at the beach or off on a bike ride, as the late afternoon winds down.

And as dinnertimes fall into place in a more organized fashion, I notice that we all enjoy them more as well. Plus the kids are getting older, which makes the event more orderly as well as more interesting. Actual conversation rather than random silliness occasionally prevails. Earlier this week, while we ate grilled sausages, corn bread and sliced cucumbers, Tim asked questions about Facebook privacy after we told him he couldn’t friend anyone who regularly used profanity in posts.

Tim wanted to know if Facebook administration would ever stop a user from using profanity. We said we didn’t think so. “Are there other things you could get in trouble for saying?” he asked.

“Well, you might get in trouble for making threats or dangerous comments,” I said.

“But not posting naked pictures?” Tim asked.

We admitted that was extremely inadvisable but not illegal, to the best of our understanding, assuming it didn’t involve minors.

"What would happen if you posted naked photos of the president?” Tim wanted to know.

“The Secret Service would track you down,” Rick told him.

“But I thought freedom of speech meant you could say whatever you wanted,” Tim argued somewhat illogically.

“Posting photos isn’t the same as freedom of speech,” I said.

“Where would you get naked pictures of the president?” Holly wondered.

“It would be easier with some presidents than others,” Rick conceded.

“Can you say anything you want on Facebook about the president?” Tim pressed.

We tried to explain the concept of treason, and that although freedom of speech is a fundamental American principle, the government also monitors public communications such as Facebook for anything they think could be a danger to society. Moreover, Facebook as an institution has to report communication that they believe to be dangerous.

“This is a very strange dinner,” Tim said at last.

“No, it’s not!” I said. “It’s a real conversation! I’ve been waiting thirteen years to have real conversations at the dinner table!”

It wasn’t even like we were discussing anything that consequential, although it’s always useful to sneak in a message or two about on-line discretion when you’re dealing with a thirteen-year-old. But to me, this was progress. Not only had I made a well-rounded dinner with all the major food groups represented, not only was everyone in the family eating from most of those food groups, but we were also discussing something beyond who said what to whom on the bus that morning.

After we’d cleared the table and washed the dishes, Tim posted this on Facebook: “Yummy and funny dinner. Sausages and cornbread. Conversations about calcium-packed food, a doctor's questionaire and talk about presidents without clothes on... All very.... fun.”

I felt exonerated. The conversation and the fact that we were all having dinner together had made an impression on him after all. It reinforced my commitment to continue having more organized dinner hours as the school year progresses. Sometimes hardly anyone eats what I prepare, and other times the kids exchange silly barbs rather than interesting ideas. But once in a while, family dinner hour works just as it should. And if we all try, maybe that will become the rule and not the exception.

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