Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte might have agreed with C.S. Lewis, who said, “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Lewis would not have agreed with her about what she recently called a tyranny.
Marcotte, responding to a study from researchers at North Carolina State, has inveighed against what she calls “the tyranny of the home-cooked family dinner.” Writing in Slate, Marcotte says that for many working moms, the stress of the home-cooked meal outweighs the many social benefits. “The main reason people see cooking mostly as a burden,” she says, “is because it is a burden. It’s expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway.”
Now I can agree with Marcotte that family dinners can be a source of stress, especially for really busy families like mine. But the benefits are undeniable. According to the Family Dinner Project, “sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members.” Family dinners are correlated with lower rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression, as well as better grades and higher self-esteem. Studies also show that family talk around the table boosts vocabulary better than reading, and that the stories told help kids develop resilience. And if you ask me, it’s a source of identity formation too.
Look, setting aside time for a home-cooked meal, and then actually pulling it off, is hard work—really hard work, especially these days. I’m on the road a ton, speaking at conferences and such, so the Stonestreet household isn’t a textbook example of how to do the family dinner. But let me tell you—whenever possible, we get it done.
Let me rephrase that a bit: my lovely bride, Sarah, gets it done. She’s amazing. Despite her other important callings—including homeschooling our girls and working at church—somehow, some way, Sarah orchestrates our family dinners. Now, I’ve been told I’m a pretty mean griller, but that’s only because Sarah is a master marinate-or. Trust me, she’s the real star, and she’s teaching my daughters how to love people and show hospitality too. In fact, when a friend recently told me we have the family dinner down to an art, it’s because when he showed up, our daughters decided to be the wait staff, printing menus and everything. Trust me—that doesn’t happen every night, but we still make the family dinner a priority.
And the good news is, we don’t have to be perfect. The goal is not to be June Cleavers or Martha Stewart. It’s to be together. Quoting Chesterton, Jerry Root and my colleague Stan Guthrie say in their book, “The Sacrament of Evangelism”, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” In other words, it’s better to try and fail, and then improve with practice, rather than simply to fail to try at all.
If you’re willing to try, here’s a few suggestions. To save time, according to Dr. Ann Fishel of the Family Dinner Project, use store-bought ingredients. Prepare double batches of food over the weekend, and quickly heat them up during the week. Teach children to help. Fishel says, “Elementary-aged kids can set and clear the table, pour the drinks and be involved in some food preparation. … Sharing in all the tasks of dinner only makes this more of a family event.”
That’s good advice. To keep anyone from feeling the “tyranny” of the family dinner, everyone should help.
But here’s another piece of advice, courtesy of Sherry Turkle. When it comes to technology, make the dinner table “sacred space.” In other words, turn off the TV, smartphone, and tablet. Just talk. Do devotions. Discuss the day’s events. Tell jokes, play word games. I meet many families who tell me they print out that day’s BreakPoint and have a family discussion. If you need some help getting started, a helpful book is “150 Quick Questions to Get Your Kids Talking”, by Mary DeMuth.
Come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and we’ll link you to these and other great resources at the Family Dinner Project.
Remember, family dinners don’t have to be a tyranny. They can, and should be, a treasure.
Reprinted with permission from BreakPoint.org.