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3 Tips on the Right Way to Have Family Dinner

3 Tips on the Right Way to Have Family Dinner

A tip for stressed-out parents: Beware conventional wisdom.

If parents have heard anything in the last few years, it’s that family dinner is great for kids. And there is research that suggests this.

Children who eat dinner regularly with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, and develop eating disorders.

Yet here’s the bad news: Fewer and fewer of us can make this happen with our schedules. A UNICEF study found that Americans ranked 23rd out of 25 countries in the percentage of children who eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times of week.

Now here’s the good news: There is an alternative. Dig deeper into the research and the data offer encouraging news for parents and a clear solution.

I spent the last few years trying to address the nagging frustrations I felt as a parent. I wanted proven solutions to the very real problems my wife and I faced with our young daughters. So I set out to meet real families, innovative scholars, and experts ranging from elite peace negotiators to top religious leaders to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

I wanted to figure out: What do happy families do right, and what can I learn from them to make my family happier?

One of the biggest revelations was about family dinner.

It turns out there’s only ten minutes of productive time in any family meal. The rest is taken up with “Take your elbows off the table” and “Pass the potatoes.” Researchers have found you can take that time and place it at other times of the day and reap the same benefits.

Can’t have family dinner? Have family breakfast. Meet for a bedtime snack. Even one meal a week together on weekends can have a positive impact.

Even more surprising – what you talk about may be even more important than what you eat. Research shows parents do two-thirds of the talking around the table. If you’re doing that, you’re not taking full advantage of the opportunity of the shared time together.

That sets up the best news of all: There are proven things you can do to get the most out of joint family talk time. I consulted psychologists, linguists, and game designers, then tested scores of ideas with my own children and other family members. I came up with more than a dozen that are both fun and have tangible benefits, but here are just a few:

3 Tips on The Right Way to Have Family Dinner

1. Word a Day – A child in grades 3 through 12 is expected to learn around 3,000 words a year. You can help by teaching your child one new word every day. When you’re together, go out of your way to use unfamiliar words. Some suggestions: Introduce a prefix (a-, bi-, dis-) or a suffix (-er, -able, -ite) and have everyone create new words. Bring a newspaper or magazine to the table and ask everyone to find a word they don’t know. Googling is this instance is allowed!

2. Autobiography Night – One of the more valuable skills a parent can give a child doesn’t cost a dime. It’s the ability to tell a simple story about their lives. Around age 5, children develop the tools to describe past events, but these skills must practiced.

Ask your child to recall a memorable experience, then follow up with “elaborative questions.” Who? What? When? Where? Why?

Don’t think this matters? Researchers compared American and Asian parents. The American mothers asked more elaborative questions and provided more positive feedback, while the Asian moms focused more on discipline. When the researchers checked back a few years later, the American children recalled more about their past, while the Asian students remembered more about their daily routines. The more kids remembered about their own history, the more confidence they had to approach challenges in their lives. Especially before a big test or sporting event, encourage your children to tell stories about their past successes or how they overcame failure. It will boost their performance.

3. Tell Your Family History – The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all.

Tell your children the story of their own family history.

Researchers at Emory found that children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.

But don’t just limit yourself to happy experiences. If your child knows that relatives overcame hurdles, like a house burning down or a bout with breast cancer, they’ll know that when they hit hurdles that can get over them, too.

The bottom line: Family dinner is less about the “dinner” and more about the “family.” With a few simple adjustments, you can use any family get-together to bring your family closer and better prepare your children to enter the world.

Excerpted with permission from The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler, copyright HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

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Your Turn

What does family dinner look like at your house? What’s one example of a great conversation starter you’ve used around the family table?