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Breaking Bread Together

The Importance of the Family Dinner Table

by Anne K. Fishel, PhD

Wellness image

When a parent gets a cancer diagnosis, regular family dinners can be one of the first things to go. But dinnertime is worth fighting for. It can provide stability and normalcy to everyone. Dinnertime may be the only time when we come together and leave behind our individual pursuits, like texting, playing videogames, and e-mailing. In cooking and eating with your family, you can nourish each other during a difficult time.

Keeping Children at the Table
If dinnertime is fun and free of conflict, children will want to stay in their seats. You may want to set some guidelines for the conversation, like no talking about grades with your teenaged kids, or agreeing to keep talk about illness “off the table.” Children who help stir the soup, crumble the cheese, and cut the vegetables are more likely to be invested in eating the meal.

The Power of Dinner Conversation
Dinner conversation is the richest, most powerful language experience of your child’s life. Researchers from the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development at Harvard found that dinner table conversations are different from any other family conversations. Unlike the kind of talk we have during carpool or while tucking in a child at bedtime, conversation at the dinner table is likely to be cognitively challenging and especially engaging. This happens because families who eat together expect that children will sit and talk for more than a few minutes. Conversation often focuses on a single topic, with input from several members, and is marked by multiple utterances that are often complex. On average, children bring up about six different topics at dinner, so conversation tends to be interesting and varied.

Studies show that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary booster than reading, and the stories we tell around the kitchen table allow our children to build resilience and self-esteem. Children who learn a lot about their parents’ own childhood and family histories by hearing them over dinner will become more resilient and have higher self-esteem.

Dinner conversation is the richest, most powerful language experience of your child’s life.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Anne Fishel

Try these conversation starters for young children:

  • What is one thing that happened today that made you feel happy, silly, friendly, smart? (You could try a different adjective each day.)
  • Ask your child to guess the ingredients in each dish. Once this gets easy, start adding a secret ingredient (like a dash of cinnamon or a splash of soy sauce).
  • Have your child tell a story about something that happened at school and another story that he or she made up about something that happened, and then have everyone else try to guess which is which. Parents can then do the same.
  • Play a game at the table – “Close your eyes. Can you remember the color of the walls? What color shirt your father is wearing?” These games lend themselves to turn-taking by each person in the family.

Try these conversation starters for school age or adolescent children:

  • Research shows that those who write down five things that make them feel grateful enjoy higher levels of happiness. Tell your kids this, and ask each member of the family to say something about their day that makes them feel thankful.
  • Ask “What is your earliest memory? Would you start your autobiography with this memory or with a different story?”
  • Have a “Talk Show Jar” with questions written on strips of paper that each family member can pull out. Each strip will have one question on it, the kind of question that Jon Stewart or Oprah asks: What do you do to recharge after a long day? What is the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?
  • Since kids who know more about their family will be more resilient, start offering family stories. For example, “Have I ever told you about my first job? Do you know the story of how your grandparents met, or how Dad and I met?” (If they are teens, don’t sugarcoat it).

Dinnertime is a nourishing ritual that reminds everyone that you are a family with stories and an identity separate from cancer. A shared pot of chicken soup or a platter of pasta with pesto brings the family to the table in a mutual pursuit in real time. Once assembled, the conversation provides the richest nutrients.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Anne Fishel is director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, and assistant clinical professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.