Thoughts of dinnertime were not always rosy for Jenny Van Horn. After relatively easy early years, her family had become fraught with conflict and anger. Prayers were no longer said. Dinner was fast food. "Even the talking was not healthy talk but 'hurry up' talk," the 54-year-old YMCA program director said.
Her four children, now ages 11 to 24, had begun to scatter to the more comfortable company of friends and cell phones. Then, their mother made the dinner hour her weapon of choice in bringing peace to the home.
Research regularly bears out the benefits of the family dinner, that it can enhance academic achievement and promote a better vocabulary. No matter that most of what's discussed alternates between body odor and unfair teachers, on a psychic level it provides structure, continuity, routine and a sense of community. During times of conflict or loss, the gathering at day's end is a welcome certainty.
But the family meal rarely follows a home-ec class outline. Sometimes a logistical nightmare, it can also be a roller coaster of emotions: One child wins the lead in the school play the same day her brother gets suspended. One hates pasta and the other will eat nothing but. Dad's company is downsizing. Mom's got a headache. The phone won't stop ringing. The meeting starts in 15 minutes.
Ironically, the same issues that tempt family members to push their chairs back and retire permanently to the TV room are the issues most ripe for being soothed by the predictable ritual of the community meal, researchers say.
But the "how" of family dinner can so befuddle parents that many avoid it altogether, shuttling from playing field to mall until the cup holders in the Tahoe get a better workout than the kitchen table. Today's Ozzie may have no sense of being entitled to a place at the head of the table. Harriet may lack the confidence to say no to that third organized sport. But it's particularly in this uncertain society that families stand to benefit from the gathering, and many find a way -- however imperfect -- to try to make it work.
Scheduling can mean a daily threading of a very fine needle. After all, the formerly sacred 4 to 7 p.m. time period is a perfect opportunity for yet another a class or workout or meeting. But it can be done, provided there's a combination of determination and flexibility. Debbie McManus, a full-time college student, limits her daughters, ages 11 and 7, to one activity -- swimming. For daily practice, her driving begins before 4 p.m. and doesn't end till 7:30. Her husband, who returns from work earlier, fixes dinner, which they all share at about 8 o'clock. "It's the one time we can all sit down together and say, 'How was your day?' It's one time to stop the rush," said McManus.
John and Donna Kurtz preside over dinner with their 16 adopted children, ages 5 to 21. They have no choice but to address logistics head-on.
Dinnertime is fixed at 6 p.m., or close to it, and begins with prayers. Everyone has assigned tasks. Seating is assigned, also, and clashing personalities are recognized and separated. Those who need extra attention or TLC get a place next to Mom or Dad. Every now and then, the acoustics cause John Kurtz to stand up and make himself heard, which calms things.
The Kurtzes define table manners broadly, well aware that rules will be broken. "We try to wait for others to stop speaking before we speak, and we even try to swallow our food before we speak," said John Kurtz. "But certain kids are wanderers, and no matter what you do, they're out of their seats." The wanderer might be asked to sit on his hands for a minute or two, cutting his travels from six times that meal to just one. An older child whose conversation was "not edifying" gets a "hey" from Dad. If it was something really serious, she might be assigned to write an essay about it later. The Kurtzes discipline judiciously, looking chiefly to provide a healing environment for their charges, who have come to them in serious distress, from many countries, well past infancy.
Veteran parents tend to keep things civilized by removing the culprit from the table for some length of time. The chief triggers for banishment seem to be fighting or pushing the limits of acceptable behavior, a category that varies greatly household to household. One clan's style is tightly contained and proper, another's rude and raucous. Pretty much anything can work.
Judy McClure and her family specialize in sarcastic humor, an atmosphere so appealing to one son's young friend that he used to appear for dinner every night. The parents used the time to "polish" the kids as well as their table skills, but didn't dampen the atmosphere. The boisterous mood reigns even today when the now-grown children come home, and their meals together are known to last three or even four hours.
While sibling squabbles are commonplace, out-and-out hostility turns the dinner hour into a time of dread. "Couples who have a daily spat should find another time of day for it," said Barbara Fiese of Syracuse University. She said the same is true for serious parent-child conflict. On the other hand, vigorous argument characterizes many families' style, and children who watch others air and resolve differences may be picking up skills, too.
Some parents have a nightly agenda -- safety tips, current events lessons, exhortations on the benefits of good personal hygiene. John Kurtz reads aloud to his brood from time to time about kindness and patience and other virtues. But the most important learning is often unnoticed. Talk of the day -- of money or war or the playground bully -- turns into an ad hoc lesson.
Many families try to vary the topics. When she was young and poor, Joanne Proko took her family "out" for dinner to the dining room one night a week, where, dressed up, they ate from their wedding china and silver.
The more troublesome the world outside, the more comforting the routines at home. But teenagers, who perhaps are most in need of the structure and stability of the dinner hour, may be the most resistant to it, researchers say. Quirky eating habits set in and, at the same time, friends, activities and desires for independence pull mightily. Transitions change the dinner hour dynamic, and when a dominant older sibling leaves for college, parents and younger teens may be left staring at each other, mute.
Food choice is itself a culprit in the breakup of "the meal as a communion" in families with teenagers, said Bradd Shore of Emory University. Food advertising has young people so sold on high-profit single-serving packaging that "eating as a personal lifestyle" has bumped aside the communal meal in many homes, he said. And while a certain amount of menu compromise never hurts, the family needs to share at least some part of the food if the gathering is to retain its power to connect, he said.
Judy Van Horn has been willing to forgo virtually all expectations in her effort to turn dinner hour into a wellspring of serenity. She knows how to seduce even a sulky 16-year-old with the simmer of the garlic and the richness of the gravy. Prefer your blenderized drink? Bring it. Vegan? Bring the veggies too. And if you don't know whether you'll be home by 6, there'll be a place set for you anyway. She just asks all to leave any ugliness aside till the meal's over. So that if you come, no one will remind you that you forgot to take out the trash. No one will berate your sister for missing her curfew again. If Van Horn and her husband forget, the kids call them on it.
Some nights it works, said Van Horn. Her children are starting to come back.