CHICAGO — Dinners together are a family’s safeguard against the ills of adolescence.
But simply sitting together with food at hand isn’t magical if the TV is on and no one talks. Some families dig no deeper than the daily courtesies of “what’s new at school?” or manage only a tense truce before rushing off to whatever’s next.
Last winter I began to notice that regularly scheduled family dinners weren’t the silver bullet to getting through the perils of the teen years. The reality check came when my oldest son turned 14 and entered the eighth grade.
We weren’t halfway through the academic year before understanding that eighth grade brought with it dating and girlfriends, experiments with cigarettes and pot, brushes with the law, yearnings for alcohol, dressing for “street cred” and flirtations with the grade-school version of senioritis.
Sure, the tales were mostly about school acquaintances and friends, and not first-person accounts. But though they came tumbling out at the dinner table, his father and I realized that meals together would have to include some serious family value indoctrination to fortify our long-haired, skateboarding, hoodie-wearing sons against all that occurs outside the safety of our home.
I pulled out our old copies of “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk,” and “Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers,” which were read back when our kids’ teen years were but a theoretical inevitability. Then we started making extensive annotations to Bruce Feiler’s book “The Secrets of Happy Families” and sprung into action.
Before March was over, the four of us had created a family logo, a family mission statement, outlined our core values and installed a three-by-four dry-erase board on the wall above our kitchen table.
Now we spend every meal just a slight nod away from our statement of core values — excellence, integrity, grit, adventure, support and optimism. We begin each meal by expressing gratitude and reciting our long-term family goals: to be nice, respectful, optimistic, supportive and flexible with each other.
Weekly family meetings are put on the calendar with individual goals color-coded and tracked on the whiteboard.
This didn’t go smoothly at first. But once the initial novelty of airing grievances about each other’s failures in living up to our new family ideals wore off, things started clicking.
We’ve since added an official gavel, rotating meeting chairmen and enrichment activities. Last week we climbed out a second-story window on our new emergency ladder to practice fleeing a house fire.
Is all this going to guarantee our teens will never dabble with alcohol, cigarettes or worse? I can only hope. But kids are kids, after all, and they all seem to make mistakes no matter what.
What I do know for sure is that since April, not a day goes by when each of us isn’t highly aware of what kind of people we’re working toward becoming. And there’s never an opportunity missed to use any meal to talk not just about “what happened today” but, specifically, what each of us do to live up to our family goals.
There are some people who doubt that family dinners are all they are made out to be. After reviewing seven years of reports from Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Carl Bialik, The Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” noted that there is a correlation, but no firm causal link, establishing that teens who eat dinner more often with their families were at a lower risk of using illegal drugs.
Bialik instead reports that the likelihood of families reaping the benefits of consistent meals together may be closely associated with a higher income and, possibly, the kind of white-collar jobs that allow for families to gather together at the end of the traditional workday.
But time and money need not prevent any parent from at least attempting to make meaningful family connections. Neither scarce resource is required to carve out a few minutes a day or per week for clearly articulating your family’s standards — and maybe even having a little fun with it.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.