Did you know that when families do not share meal times together their teens are 2X more likely to use alcohol regularly and 1 1/2 X's more likely to smoke pot? Those are some compelling stats. I meet with many parents who have two or three kids all off in different directions and who have different schedules, coupled with dual career parents who might be traveling or home late from work, way after a normal dinner hour. What's a family to do?
It is a challenge, no doubt. But without scheduled times during the week when parents and kids gather together, we are all ships passing in the night, and conversations and interactions morph into 3 word questions or statements. Parents: "Have you done your (fill in the blank) yet". Teens: " Mom/Dad I need/want (fill in the blank)."
And then parents wonder why their kids never talk to them. Teens do not do well with conversations on the fly. Just because you are in the car with them and you think this is a good time to have a conversation about (fill in the blank) because you have a captive audience, doesn't mean your teen thinks it's a good time. They may be rehashing in their head an encounter they had during the day or maybe about to have with a friend, crush, girlfriend or boyfriend, coach, and your intrusion into their thoughts will be met with silence or attitude. Both of which feel insulting to you because you feel shut out and shut down.
Regular and predictable mealtimes provide moments of spontaneity and connection, not appointment conversations. Conversations about the world, stories about family and friends provide a non-threatening context for addressing subjects indirectly. Telling a story about a party you went to over the weekend and how you couldn't believe how much people drank, could easily move into a conversation about how people act differently when they are drunk. You gotta have at least one "lampshade" story hanging around. Or a disagreement with a colleague or boss at work might move into a discussion about controlling or hard to get along with people. Or a discussion about a newsworthy event like the one about the 10 accepted Harvard students whose admissions were rescinded after offensives posts were discovered on an accepted Harvard student Facebook page. This might be an opener to discuss why people post such mean things about other people or groups . Get the picture. But without these kinds of relaxed settings, there are few opportunities for your teens to converse and share ideas about things other than what goes on in their small world of friends and schools. The world is a big place, and and they need to explore it with you, even if the world is your dinner table.
Family meals often require sacrifice. Making commitments and following through on them is an important lesson and model for children to witness. I have worked with families where finding a common night(s) for family dining is akin to getting a reservation at the most popular restaurant in town. Excuses I have heard from parents: "I can never get home before 8, I in a tennis/squash/softball league and I can't let my team down, I have meetings every night, I am very involved with my church/temple/community. Granted this is all important stuff, but so are your kids. Sunday nights are a no brainer. Attendance required by all. No eating in rooms, in front of TV, I don't care if you eat in silence and no one talks or looks at each other. Try for at least one other night. The research shows 5 is magic number, but 2 is better than none. Also if this is something new for your family, have low expectations. Your family may not be used to all being in the room at the same time. Your kids will balk, be sullen, and wonder why they can't take their plate up to their room like they always do? Give them a hug, an "I just like seeing your adorable face", a shoulder shrug, but insist. It might take a while before anyone actually talks. I don't mean minutes, I mean weeks. But be persistence. Come to the table with a story, talk about yourself, or someone you know. When your kids get that this isn't a one shot deal, and this family time, is really gonna happen regularly and consistently, they will begin to join in.
So cook a great meal, get some great takeout, make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, who cares what the food is, so instead of making a meal, make some time!