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What’s the most important 18 minutes of the day for families?

“I hate mealtimes with my kids,” confessed one mom at a parenting workshop. “I prefer some time at dinner with my husband rather than being a disciplinarian with the kids.”

While I applauded mom’s commitment to her spouse, I told her she was making a big mistake in not eating together as a family.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, eating four to six family meals per week is related to lots of good outcomes with kids. Children growing up in that environment get better grades in school, have fewer behavior problems, get along better with their parents, and are less likely to abuse drugs or become obese.

The typical family meal only lasts around 18 minutes. What happens during that short time that has such a profound impact on kids and parents? Eating together under the right circumstances connects us to our kids. It can be a time when they learn a bit more about us and they sometimes allow us to enter their private worlds. Family dinners can send a message of caring and support when everyone rearranges their schedules to make family a higher priority over so many other competing expectations.

Only about 50 percent of families eat dinner together, and that percent tends to decrease as kids get older. The irony is that as teens need us the most, we and they are less likely to make being together over meals a priority. Many parents say it just isn’t worth the hassle. Here’s how successful families make it work.

  1. Power down. This means no television, texting, or cell phones. Don’t answer the phone during dinner.
  2. Establish and enforce rules of etiquette. Beginning when the kids are toddlers, make certain that you clearly communicate and consistently enforce expectations for good behavior. This means no name-calling or put-downs among siblings, meals start when everyone is seated and everyone stays together until the meal is finished.
  3. Don’t use mealtimes as disciplinary sessions. Don’t yell at your kids during dinner for their dirty room or incomplete school work. It’s a time for discussion and connection, not interrogation and punishment.
  4.  Be open. Allow your kids to get to know the real you. Share stories about your day, including your dreams and frustrations. Teens really like it when we are authentic enough to discuss some of our failures and they get to see us as real people. Involve kids in the conversation, but avoid the appearance of cross-examining them. Talk about current events that matter to them.
  5. Never, ever say, “…but I’m just so busy.” Give your family about 18 minutes a day, and in return you are more likely to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids. I know it can be hard with your busy work schedule and your child’s hectic lifestyle, but that’s why it’s so important to send the right message that it’s “Family First” in our home.
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We have created this blog as a way to communicate key childrens' health and safety issues to parents and other child advocates. It is managed by Dayton Children's department of marketing communications. Comments can be sent to rodneyg@childrensdayton.org.

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