According to a recent article in (appropriately enough)Time magazine, groups of harried parents across the
USA are joining a wave of slow living advocates by doing something really revolutionary--having one sit-down dinner at home with their kids each week.
I don't know whether to applaud or cry. The idea that parents are willing to undertake the Herculean task of
rearranging their schedules to fit in a single dinner at home is laudable. The fact that it requires superhuman effort is terribly sad.
How did we get here? The article states that back in the 1980s, sociologists decided that providing
structured activities for kids would prevent juvenile delinquency. In addition, education experts suggested
that American children needed to study harder to compete academically in the global market.
At the same time, American business leaders looked around and discovered they were losing their edge. They bumped up hours and production rates in an effort to keep ahead of burgeoning Asian countries. This new
competitiveness spilled over into the home, where mothers fresh from the work force took the corporate ideal of high productivity to the playgrounds.
I spent most of the eighties living and working in Asia. I taught English in Japan for five years, so I'm all too
familiar with the "education mama" syndrome. What's interesting is that the American mamas have taken that
same emphasis on competition and achievement and focused on sports or other activities. Although we don't have to suffer the unfortunate consequences of despondent students going through the examination hell
of the Japanese system, we have burned out 15-year-olds having knee surgery for ten years' worth of soccer injuries, and families who can't remember their last no-TV, no-phone, real food meal at home.
I think that somewhere between a manic preoccupation with education and a rabid adherence to frenzied activity schedules is a happy medium.
It's called dinner.
People in Europe or Latin America are horrified to hear of families in the U.S. gulping dinner in their cars on a
daily basis. It's appalling that there are actually campaigns to re-introduce the concept of sitting down to eat. In cultures where families gather for meals every afternoon and again late in the evening, they view this obsession with achievement as baffling, alarming and pitiful.
And they're right.
The truth is that it's pretty hard to lose control of your family's activities if you make dinner a priority most nights. It's simply not possible to attend multiple practices each night if you're expected at the dinner table from 6:30-7:30.
When I tell people that I have four teenage daughters (ages 13, 14, 16 and 17), they look at me with a mixture of horror and pity. Life must be tough at your house, they say. You must live in your car, they tell me.
My idea of multi-tasking is breathing, talking, and hiking in the woods--all at the same time. My family eats a
relaxing dinner together at home--by candlelight!--at least five nights a week. It's the best part of the day.
Don't get me wrong. Sports are great for kids. So is drama. And music. And debate.
But dinner matters, too.
I figure that my kids aren't going to be living with us forever, and while they're here, it's a lot more important
to have dinner together than it is to have the girls sign up for every sport and activity on earth.
What they lack in basket-shooting ability, they've gained in conversation skills, thoughtfulness, and an
appreciation for family and shared meals.
They don't eat yogurt from a tube while riding in a van, then race home to study. Here's a typical scene at our
house: four girls sprawled on the floor in front of the fireplace, doing homework or reading. This is after
we've had an enjoyable dinner and they've cleaned up the kitchen.
It makes me feel terribly guilty. Shouldn't I be exhausted and irritable, battered by constant demands for rides and juice packs?
It's not that my kids don't do anything. They're into all kinds of activities--drama, music, dance, volunteer work, and even jobs. Two are gearing up for lacrosse, one is
in the midst of interviews for a year-long exchange program, while the oldest is in her senior year and doing
the college application dance. It's a busy time.
And yet, they still eat a real dinner at home most nights.
All of us--singles, married couples, young families and empty nesters--can benefit from the dinner ritual. By
adopting and continuing the tradition of shared meals and conversation, we are emphasizing the importance
of thinking and sharing ideas. If we want our culture to value thinking, we've got to start by offering a tribute to it on a daily basis.
Okay, so my kids may never get athletic scholarships. They may never meet a single university athletic director before choosing which college to attend. They won't be the next Olympic gymnast or ice skater, and they're not likely to be conducting symphonies by the time they're 25.
They'll have to settle for being happy, smart, kind, aware, motivated, and full of enthusiasm for the world
and their place in it. Their father and I will just have to be satisfied with lasting memories of slow life with our
cherished children, and our daughters will strive only to duplicate this same lifestyle for their own families
Radical, isn't it?