It can be difficult for parents to know what the best parenting advice is that they should take on. There is so much information around to sort through. To make it even more challenging, sometimes the advice is conflicting or unrealistic. It can feel overwhelming and sap our energy as we try to work out what we know will be best for our children and family.
One of the consistent pieces of advice that comes through research is the value of the regular family meal. This advice came out again this week in some research related to cyberbullying. Researchers found that those adolescents whose families had frequent family meals struggled less with the negative effects of cyberbullying than those families who didn't. You can see more information about this research here.
If we think for a moment about why this might be the case, we can probably come up with quite a lot of benefits from having regular family meals:
1. A sense of connection - we feel connected to each other when we spend time together. Sitting together to eat (and prepare food together) is a way to keep a sense of family, a sense of importance in who I am and a sense of history as part of this family.
2. Opportunity to share - the family meal can provide a time to check in with each other, share stories, talk about what's happening and test out ideas.
3. Notice each other - during a family meal parents might be able to notice when their teenager is a bit quiet or seems distant. These could be early indicators that things are not right. The parent can then follow up with the teenager later to ask if everything is ok. Catching this as early as possible is important so that any problems don't become bigger and more difficult to manage.
4. Remind each other of the values the family holds. Although teenagers are starting to test out the values of their families and test out new beliefs and ideas, the family continues to be important. By prioritising family meals the message is clear that this family unit is important and we spend time together as a family.
5. Routines and rituals make a difference - when life gets busy and stressful one way to give us some balance can be to revert to our routines and rituals. This promotes a sense of calm and stability.
Regular or frequent family meals does not mean every day. Some benefits have been found when families have meals together just several times a week. Each family will find their own way to make this work; perhaps it's an agreement that it is expected that a particular night is family night for example. Or the family might make the time even if one of the members is not able to be present; the routine goes on. The goal is to make family meal time enjoyable and fun so that everyone looks forward to it and wants to be part of it.
This might be pretty difficult for some families to make work, particularly when there is shift work or other commitments which take family members away from the family during meal times. So the list above highlighting the benefits of meal times could be used to help identify some other ways the same benefits could be achieved. For example, a regular outing or time spent together in other ways could have similar benefits.
It's important that it's not just the busy time where everyone is focused on their own thing but a time when the family members can connect with each other. When family members are away from each other, finding ways to remain connected, using technology which is so accessible now, can still be beneficial. Sometimes it's the small things we notice with each other that makes a difference.
I love family meal times. I was brought up having meals around the table every night as a family and it's something we now do and enjoy with our children. I love hearing how everyone's day has gone, and it's 100% family time with no interuptions.