Sunday, October 4, 2009

Family Dinner

It should have been good news. Thirteen years ago parents learned that if they wanted to shield their teenage children from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, they needed merely to schedule more regular family dinners.

In 1996 Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Drug Abuse reported this conclusion. Further studies have confirmed their findings. Other researchers have suggested that regular family dinners can also prevent some adolescent eating disorders.

This suggests that adolescents are suffering because their families lack organizational structure. We need to spend less time thinking about whether parents love their children enough and more time encouraging them to organize family life.

As a cure for adolescent malaise, this feels more constructive than pills, talk therapy, mystical journeys of self-discovery, identity crises, and soulful conversations with parents.

Of course, family dinner is also harder. It requires more work, more coordination, and more planning.

You would think that it would all be good news. Not quite. Two days ago the New York Times reported that our therapy culture has taken this simple advice and used it to guilt-trip parents.

When you have learned how to guilt trip yourself and others, constructive suggestions become opportunities to exercise your talent. Link here.

It would be better if we all understood that once the information is out, once people know the importance of these rituals, then it is up to them to work out the details. Or not.

The more important issue concerns why family dinners work.

For my part I am not surprised by this research. Nor was I in 1996.

I emphasized the importance of family dinners in my book on "Saving Face," which slightly predated the original research. When I was working on that book I did not want to look at parent-child relationships in terms of a mother-infant dyad or in terms of psychosexual development. So, I took the more Confucian approach and considered the family as a functioning group, held together by ritual, not by emotional glue.

I wrote: "In a functional family the family dinner serves as a ritual affirmation of group membership. It transforms nourishment from a private experience of consumption into an orderly social event."

I added: "A family is not a romantic idyll in which solidarity is created by covering everyone in love. A child may receive all the love he could ever deal with and still by harmed by not knowing whether anyone will be there when he comes home from school, by not knowing when and with whom he will be having dinner, or by not knowing whether anyone cares about how well he did on his spelling quiz. Erratic evidence of deep affection will not compensate for the insecurity produced by inconsistent behavior."

Insecurity about an uncertain future causes children to look backward with nostalgia. It does not allow them to look forward with optimism.

As the Times article suggests, the value of family dinner does not lie in the deeply meaningful conversations that may or may not take place there. Dinners provide a child with organization, structure, and reconnection. They make him feel that he belongs, thus that he is not simply out there on his own.

I did not think then and I do not think now that the issue should be quality or quantity time. You may recall that the culture invented the notion of quality time when parental schedules became so full that parents did not have very much time to spend with their children.

Supposedly, increased quality time would compensate for decreased quantity time.

Thereby parents were encourage to seek out moments of intense emotional connection.

At the time this seemed shortsighted. It still does. It ignored the child's social being and veered dangerously close to taking the therapy session-- quality time, if ever there was any-- as the prototype of human relationships.

A child who does not have consistent family dinners will lose the sense of belonging to a group, will fail to see how his actions affect others, and will lose control over his impulses.

He might compensate with experiences of intense intimacy, or by experiences of intense sensation. Feeling along and isolated, disconnected from others, demoralized and depressed... a child might need to go to an extreme to connect or to experience pleasure.

Unfortunately, relationships that involve excessive intimacy can never fully provide the feeling of being a functioning social being.

Nor can talk therapy. Isn't talk therapy an excessively intimate experience that is supposed to cure anomie, but that often turns into drama.

As I have suggestion, drama ensues when we seek to use intimate relationships to compensate for a failure to affirm ourselves as social beings.

No comments: