I almost changed the title of this post to “Why my Kids won’t be Olympians,” since it seems appropriate this week. There are many reasons (mostly genetic and statistical) my kids won’t be in the Olympics, but one reason is that high-level sports commitments are just not as much of a priority for our family as being together for dinner.
Two years ago, after the fall soccer season wound down, I got lazy. I didn’t sign my kids up for any winter sports. Then winter rolled along, and I didn’t sign them up for any spring sports. I was just completely unmotivated. The thought of getting the kids to all the games and practices was just overwhelming, and I was enjoying evenings at home with no driving around, so I procrastinated until it was too late to sign them up. And from my laziness came an accidental, wonderful discovery. All seven of us, our entire family, was home for a leisurely family dinner almost every single night. No evening sports practices meant no disjointed eating here and there and no driving around until all hours of the night. We had many family dinners that year. Five or six nights a week we sat at our dining table and ate together. We shared our Highs and Lows. We told lots of stories. Our older kids even learned how to cook dinner! Many evenings, we talked at the table for more than an hour. Our family dinners were especially poignant that year, because our oldest daughter was leaving for college, and it was our adopted son’s first year home. That was the last year all seven of us were home full-time and able to gather around the table regularly.
I had an epiphany that year. Family dinner is really important, yet our culture conspires against us having dinner together. If we sign our kids up for every cool-sounding club and sport, none of us will ever be home in the evening, let alone having dinner together. Between work demands that keep one or both parents away, evening sports practices, and religious and club commitments, family dinner has, for some families, become a distant memory. Our culture prioritizes almost everything else over our families being together. Our family calendars can easily be filled every evening if we sign up for everything we or our kids want to do. All this great stuff is happening in our communities – scout meetings, soccer practice, play practice, advanced karate and gymnastics lessons — at exactly the same time we would be having dinner together if we were home.
Before I go on, let me give my definition of family dinner so you don’t imagine something too elaborate. Family dinner means we’re sitting around our dining table, eating and talking with each other. No phones or other electronic devices are present. So, whether we have a home-cooked meal or a plastic Panda Express bowl in front of us, we’re together and we’re at the table. For me, family dinner does not look like June Cleaver’s pot roast coming out from the oven and often involves my awesome husband cooking or picking up something easy to eat or make. Family dinner is my people, sitting together, eating something.
I don’t need to tell you how important family dinners are. In Christine Carter’s book, Raising Happiness, she says, “The benefits of family mealtimes for kids are remarkable. Studies show that kids who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are more emotionally stable and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They get better grades. They have fewer depressive symptoms, particularly among adolescent girls. And they are less likely to become obese or have an eating disorder. Family dinners even trump reading to your kids in terms of preparing them for school.” Can I re-write that for you in bullet form?
Kid who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis:
• are more emotionally stable
• are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
• get better grades
• have fewer depressive symptoms
• are less likely to become obese or have an eating disorder
If that isn’t a compelling list, I don’t know what is.
We’re now down to two kids still at home, but we still have dinner together just about every night. Never again are we going back to the way we used to do things, with one kid having practice Monday and Wednesday evenings and the other (surprise!) scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving NO evenings at home. School sports with practices right after school are great and work for us. But club and other advanced, specialized sports with evening practices are out. We’re not willing to let one child’s sport be our family’s top priority.
I know other families who have family breakfast, because dinner doesn’t work for them. We’re too slow and uncommunicative in our family for any coherent conversation in the morning, so that wouldn’t work for us. Maybe there’s some other time of day when you can get together with your family regularly, but for us dinner is it. Dinner is our family time. And we are going to hold on to that precious time as long as we have kids in the house. I’ll never regret spending that time connecting with them, and I know that these family dinners will be over far too soon.