Sometimes you have to pull back the lens and take a wider view.
We can do many quick, easy activities that help our children develop an orientation towards social justice and enable them to see themselves as change agents. By putting some longer-term practices into place as well, such as having regular family dinners, we can likely make an even bigger impact.
Sharing meals as a family, on a regular basis, correlates with huge, long-term rewards.
Kids who eat meals with their families show positive outcomes, including better academic performance, a greater sense of resilience, lower risk of substance abuse, depression and teen pregnancy, lower rates of eating disorders and obesity, and more. While the research does not prove that regular family dinners cause these outcomes - other family practices may work to provide such benefits - they offer an important tool in your tool box for connecting with your child and relaying your values.*
Shared dinners provide an opportunity for daily discussions about your values and the actions you take to create a more equitable and sustainable world. These consistent discussions over meals work cumulatively to instill in your children a sense of your family identity. They learn to see themselves as people who stand up to bullies and work to fight injustice.
Meals with preschoolers aren’t always easy. They fidget, they get up from the table, they play with their food.
Still, start now, at least a few times a week, to set this important family ritual in place. It will make it easier to get your kids to the table when they’re older, the discussions get deeper, and the stakes get higher.
A few guidelines for family dinners can help get you started:
No electronics at the table, ever. Turn phones and tablets off and put them away, and if a phone rings, don’t answer it.
Create a peaceful, no-pressure atmosphere at your table by letting go of any expectations about what or how much your child eats. No power struggles over food! A great resource for those who struggle with how to get their kids to eat in a healthy way is How to Get Your Kid to Eat … But Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter.
If your child pops out of her chair every few minutes, tell her that when she gets up, she’s letting you know she’s all done, and next time you will put her food away. Then follow through. Repeat this at every meal, until she understands that we sit at the table when we eat.
Lay the groundwork now for this important practice as they get older.
It won’t always be easy, especially when they’re little, but also as they start to grow up. In my family, we had our share of meals ended abruptly by a moody pre-teen or teenager getting up and slamming the door to her room behind her. But it’s so worth the struggle, in the connections you’ll deepen, the issues you’ll discuss, and the values you’ll instill.
* Thanks to reader Peter Shattuck for reminding me that correlation does not equal causation. I have changed this from an earlier version that did not make that distinction.