One of the most significant tragedies in our society is the high rate of family breakdown.

The fatherless family, for example, is associated with heretofore unthinkable situations – gangs, guns, and shooting deaths in our schools, streets, and homes.  Anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are not uncommon teenage characteristics, and separation and divorce are dark clouds looming over many families.

The question to be addressed: Why is this happening?  A second question is how can this be remedied?

Harvard Study on the Family

A study of this problem was carried out at Harvard University in 2020.  It uncovered an astonishing factor that is contributing to family breakdown.  It is the fact that families today are far too busy to sit down together for meals.  In the past twenty years, dozens of studies document that the family having dinner together occurs only in about 30% of families.  However, the Harvard study found that family meals deepen family connection and lead to greater family stability.

Family meals have surprising health benefits and are associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, early teen pregnancy, higher rates of resilience and self-esteem as well as higher academic achievement.  In fact, family time together is more important to academic success than homework.  This is because family meals involve a sharing of conversations, ideas and feelings, and promote a sense of belonging which provides a sense of security to children in a troubled and confusing world.

The strengthening of family bonds achieved by meal time together is difficult for families today because of so much coming and going, including unpredictable, conflicting schedules, sporting events, etc. This provides little time to prepare a meal and be together to eat it.

Although the tipping point to acquire family benefits is five meals a week, it doesn’t have to be dinner, but can be breakfast, brunches, or late night snacks together: whatever works for a family.  It doesn’t have to be meals that are perfectly prepared or the family having perfect manners – what matters is that it is enjoyable and that the children feel when they speak, somebody wants to listen to them.

It is important that criticism, anger, and conflicts be curbed, even though they are inevitable in all families.  Phones must be parked at the door unless something on the phone must be shared with a family member as part of the conversation.

Families with teenagers know that it can be difficult to have a conversation with them.  Teens may appear to want nothing to do with parents at the dinner table or elsewhere.  However, it is significant that a survey of teenagers has indicated that when they are asked whether they would rather eat with their parents than by themselves in front of a screen or with their friends, 80% choose their families.

To develop a family meal time together may seem overwhelming.  It is recommended, therefore, to start by making a commitment to just once a week. Otherwise, the participants may want to give up.  It’s about having a flexible format, not trying to re-create the 1950’s with a spotless kitchen and perfect meals.  The idea is to involve the family together and focus on what is happening in the lives of each family member.  It’s not about the food (although everyone loves food).

Finally, all families are different. A family dinner means all families, including families consisting of a single parent and one child.