Family mealtimes can make kids hungry to learn


Dinner time has become a family event that we rush through. Or drive through. Or have delivered.

Blame it on ballet or baseball, Mom's job or Dad's commute, but Norman Rockwell's picture of the whole family gathered at the table is fading.

When our children were babies, you could set your watch by their mealtimes, so rigid were we about what and when they ate.

Now, the ritual of the family meal shifts and floats and is very nearly erased by the friction of our busy lives -- lessons, practice, games, night meetings.

And, truth be told, it isn't always pleasant to eat with children. There are only four things they will eat. (All but the various shapes of pasta can be lifted to the mouth without silverware.)

Children are barely civilized at mealtime, and see no reason to be. They would rather argue with each other than chat with you. And they are done and eager to leave the table before you have warmed your seat.

But I read somewhere that a survey of National Merit Scholars showed not one thing in common -- not family income, not parents' education, not anything you might imagine -- except that they all sat down with their families at dinner time. Their academic success and employment stability were linked to that one, modest family event.

Great, I thought, as I shouted into the speaker box at the drive-through window for the third night in a row. My children are doomed to a life of illiteracy and indentured servitude.

"Dinner time is the one thing I find very hard to let go of," says my friend, whose mealtimes, like mine, shift with the vagaries of the sports season.

"In our family, it wasn't just important. It was sacred."

Nan grew up in Iowa, the only daughter and youngest child of a pair of educators. And from the way she tells it, kids were more likely to show up at her house for dinner than for the movies on Saturday -- even though they were in for a kind of meat-and-potatoes version of "It's Academic."

Chairs slid back from the table often every night as one child or another was sent to "look it up." A definition, a quotation, a fact from history. Anything.

"I was the youngest, so I tried to keep my head down," Nan recalls. "And when my father would ask me something, I would mumble that not only didn't I know, I didn't much care to know. But he sent me to look it up anyway."

Dessert was a novel. More than 150, Nan guesses, were read in the lingering moments after meals. Even when the family mobilized to do the dishes, Nan's mother would read to them as they worked. The neighborhood kids, the family friends, all listened.

This was no dour Puritan home. Nan's father was as likely to throw a wet dish towel as any of the kids were. And you can tell from her own laughter that there was plenty of that at Nan's dinner table.

And it was not such a different time. Her mother shifted the dinner hour all over the clock to accommodate Brownies and football and meetings.

"Even now, with everybody going every which way, I cling very hard to dinner time," she says.

Dinner time is at a kind of crossroads in our lives. Though heat-and-eat meals that kids can serve themselves are the hottest new item on the grocery shelves, the reverence that Americans, even children, have for this ritual shows up in survey after survey.

The kind of story-telling, the verbal sparring, the nature of the exchanges between kids and their parents at mealtime -- the equal footing -- would be considered remarkable in almost any culture outside our own.

And you can imagine what it does for children to know that the modest happenings of their days are cherished enough for a place at the center of the dinner table, like Rockwell's golden turkey.

I shared a meal with Nan and her widowed father not long ago. The conversation was so good-naturedly sharp-tongued, combative and quick that I could barely keep up. I was tongue-tied and I felt dull-witted, but my heart raced with the pace and the height of the exchanges.

I don't remember what Nan served; I don't think I tasted it as I ate. But I do remember that her father challenged my use of a word. Wrong context for its meaning, he said. And he sent Nan to the dictionary to look it up.

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