Is the family dinner hour about to become obsolete?

Some social researchers worry that it will. As we overschedule our lives with work and extracurricular activities, we won't have as much time to sit down together for meals as a family unit.

The consequences, they warn, will be a generation of youngsters who have less opportunity to develop self-esteem, communication skills, manners and a sense of responsibility.

"Dinner is one of the few times during the day that the whole family is together," says Atlanta psychologist Michael Popkin, "so dinner becomes one of the few times for emotional bonding. This reinforces a child's sense of belonging, which is a basic foundation for mental health and self-esteem."

C. Margaret Hall, associate professor and chair of the sociology department at Georgetown University, agrees. "Parents learn what is going on in the life of their children and they get to hear it from the children's perspective, which should make them more understanding adults.

"In turn," says Hall, who is also a family therapist, "children learn what is going on in the life of their siblings and parents. Being in the know makes children feel more sure and secure."

For those who study behavior, the family dinner hour is not a new subject of concern. In the 1940s, social researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were recording and analyzing table talk.

Authors James Bossard and Eleanor Boll reported in their 1948 college textbook The Sociology of Child Development (Harper and Row) that the dinner table was the focal point for most of the family interaction, and thus it also was the time the family was most apt to reveal its true self: whether exchanges were constructive or destructive, and whether the father, mother or one of the children was in charge of the household.

So why the new scrutiny of the dinner hour as we finish the 1980s?

Family therapists point to the rise in two-career families and single-parent families. Many mothers and fathers have less time to spend with their children and are asking how to make the most of it. The dinner hour, say parenting pros, is one way families can spend quality time together.

"Dinner becomes one of the few times for emotional bonding. This reinforces a child's sense of belonging." -- Psychologist Michael Popkin Among the questions these therapists are asked concerning the dinner hour:

"How long should the dinner hour be?"

"Whatever it takes to eat at a relaxed pace and share and discuss news. Thirty minutes might be enough for some while others may prefer an hour. Do try to keep it to the same time -- 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. or whatever," says sociologist Hall. "Routine makes youngsters feel secure. Don't delay it more than 15 to 30 minutes to accommodate a tardy family member. Let your family know that you expect them to make the dinner meal together a top priority and to show up on time. If someone can't, it is only courteous to let you know ahead."

Palo Alto psychologist Arthur Bodin tells the story about parents with a young daughter who dawdled at the table. They couldn't understand why it took her so long to eat. Was it a lack of appetite? Was she having difficulty swallowing? Bodin, president-elect of the Family Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association, told them she was starved for attention. The dinner meal was the only time she could get her parents to look and listen so she wanted to make the most of it. Since they had other evening activities, he advised them to tell the child ahead when mealtime would have to be over and to make it a point to give her quality attention at other times as well.

"In our family, Dad doesn't get home from work until 7 or 8 p.m. The children are home from school by 4 or 5 p.m. and they are starving. I can't expect them to wait to eat dinner so that we can be together as a family."

"Who's in charge?" asks psychologist Lonnie Carton. "You or the kids? Give them a nutritious snack to tide them over until dinner with their father or serve them dinner earlier but save the fruit or dessert course to eat later with their dad and allow time for meaningful conversation."

Carton, who is director of the Parent Education Resource Center-School Volunteers for Boston and is the author of Raise Your Kids Right (Pocket Books, 1985), offers another reason for an orderly dinner hour: "Unfortunately," she says, "I see the flip side when children don't eat with parents. There's a good reason why school cafeterias are called 'zoos.' "

"Everyone in our house is on a different schedule. My husband and I both work and never seem to come home at the same time twice. The teens have afterschool sports and club activities. There is no way we can have dinner together every night as a family unit. What do you suggest?"

"Schedule a quiet time of talk later in the evening after homework or before bed. On the weekend, make it a point to have at last one family meal," says Bodin. "The hectic schedule has a silver lining. It provides opportunities for various family members to eat together. When talking in subgroups, they may discover and enjoy new facets of one another."

"For the last two years, I've been a single parent. After the divorce, I didn't feel we were much of a family anymore. The dinner hour was the most difficult time. That's when the absence of the children's father was felt most. When the kids asked to eat their dinner in front of the TV, I didn't raise any objections. What do you think?"

"It is even more important for the single-parent family to make dinner together a top priority," says psychologist Popkin. "Immediately following the divorce is the time the children feel especially vulnerable and insecure. Dinner together reinforces that you are still a family unit even without that other parent at the table. Occasionally, invite other adults to join the family for dinner -- people your children already know, such as longtime family friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles. To bring to the table someone of the opposite sex they do not know might make them worry that you are about to announce remarriage plans," says Popkin.

Says Carton: "The added adults give the children a chance to hear other points of view and help them learn skills of being a good host and making a guest feel comfortable."

"If there are never adult visitors," adds Hall, "the single parent may use their children as their confidantes. This places an inappropriate burden on children."

"How do you feel about TV being on during dinner?"

"The best news is family news," says Popkin. "No TV with dinner."

Adds Carton, "Some parents turn on the TV with the excuse that they absolutely must watch the news to keep informed. This is nonsense. News shows come on several times during the evening."

Bodin believes, however, that exceptions can be made. "If you must watch while you eat to see an especially important program -- President's address or a sporting event, for example -- it could be a unifying experience. Spend a little time together afterward talking about it so that there's family interaction."

"I recently married for a second time. I have two teens. My husband also has two teens from his previous marriage who live with us. The dinner hour is the absolutely worst time of day. I have always expected my children to talk and share at the table. He grew up in a family where children were seen but never heard. He doesn't allow his children to talk while we're eating and gets mad when mine do. Any suggestions?"

"Have a family discussion or meeting -- separate from the dinner hour -- and pool ideas as to how to deal with this," recommends Hall. "What is most important is that the dinner time be relaxed and tension-free."

Says Bodin, "The husband and wife should try to resolve this, possibly bringing in the children on some parts of this if the parents have made substantial progress. If they can't, they may benefit from professional help."

"What about dining at a restaurant?"

"If you sit down together as a family and have time for real communication, then the fast food place or restaurant experience can be as meaningful as dining at home," says Hall. "If the child feels it's a special treat, he or she may be more relaxed and more likely to open up and discuss a troubling issue. Eating out is a real release for parents, too."

Adds Carton, "Of course, if you eat out as a family at a restaurant, you can control your children's eating habits. If they act like pigs or are rude, you can give them a look or a gentle reminder. But the many times your children are invited for a snack, dinner or a sleep-over at someone's home, the only control you have is the good training you've provided at home. Like it or not, your children's actions reflect your actions. So it isn't only for our children's good that you eat together as a family. Consider it self-protection."

1987 Barbara Burtoff Syndicated Features