SU psychology professor: mealtime routines and rituals key to children’s mental health
SU psychology professor: mealtime routines and rituals key to children’s mental healthJanuary 31, 2006Carol K. Masiclatclkim@syr.edu
Those brussel sprouts aren’t the only healthy thing for kids at the dinner table, according to a new study by Barbara Fiese, professor and chair of the psychology department in The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.
Through their research with more than 75 families, Fiese and SU colleagues Kimberly P. Foley and Mary Spagnola determined that the rituals and routines involved in family mealtimes not only contribute to the mental health of children, they help establish a sense of family identity and provide a positive environment for problem solving for both parents and children.
The study, titled “Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes: Contexts for child well-being and family identity,” will be published in an upcoming issue of the scholarly publication, New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development.
“Family mealtimes are more than just a time to grab something to eat,” says Fiese. “They are opportunities for family members to catch up on the day’s events, problem solve around sensitive topics, and even expand your vocabulary. While there is the misconception that family mealtimes as a regular practice are on the decline, recent national polls and epidemiological studies suggest that the majority of families with school-age children eat together, on average, four times a week. These are not necessarily long elaborate gatherings, as most meals average 20 minutes. However, these are densely packed events where the symbolic meanings of family membership are often embedded between a request to pass the mashed potatoes and an answer to, ‘How was your day today?'”
Fiese and her research team first distinguished the terms “routine” and “rituals.” Routines are directly observable behaviors, such as task assignment or the habit of scheduling meals at a specific time each day. Rituals are acts more closely linked to symbolic or emotional aspects of family life, such as using nicknames or enjoying a traditional family recipe. Fiese then discussed routines and rituals in terms of three dimensions: communication, commitment and continuity. In both routines and rituals, these three principles are critical to creating mealtime experiences that help families connect and function on a daily basis and develop strong memories that bond family members together, helping to support a sense of emotional well-being within the group.
Data for the study were collected by videotaping families during mealtimes. During the sessions, Fiese found that communication between family members could be direct or indirect. Fiese defined direct communication as communication that sends an unambiguous message that roles are clearly assigned, such as mealtime tasks like setting or clearing the table. When such roles are not assigned and guidance is absent, it results in family members feeling “lost” as to who is responsible for getting the meal done. For example, a simple request to pass the mashed potatoes can turn into an opportunity to berate and put down a child’s food choice rather than fulfill a basic need. According to Fiese, when communication is direct and a clear exchange of information takes place, children experience less distress overall and are less likely to have internalizing symptoms, such as worry and somatic complaints.
Open and direct communication is important at the dinner table because it is often the place where conversations on sensitive topics take place. Whether it is to seek advice, ask for permission to go on a trip or just to vent, family members often broach topics of importance at mealtimes. Fiese states, “The emotional bonds created during these repetitive gatherings are played over and over again in memory, contributing to a sense that individuals belong to a group that can be a safe refuge.”
Continuity is another important aspect of the family mealtime. Ritual use of nicknames and sharing of inside jokes lend a feeling of belongingness to family members. In addition, traditional dishes, recipes and blessings get passed down from one generation to the next, creating a shared, intergenerational continuity of rituals and sense of family identity. Continuity of routine is comforting notonly because it establishes a predictable and regular environment; it prevents confusion and helps avert a conflict over who washes the dishes tonight, for example. In the study, Fiese points out that planning is essential to maintaining continuity. The research team found that families who report more deliberate planning around mealtimes were less likely to report internalizing problems in their children. Repetition of roles over time is also important at mealtimes.
Fiese also mentions that “activity monitor” is a role often played by many parents at the dinner table. Previous research shows that when parents keep track of their children’s whereabouts and activities, children tend to do better in school. As activity monitor, parents may use dinner as an opportunity to inquire about a child’s day at school, homework assignments and projects, and plan for transportation to upcoming events or activities. Not only does a great deal of planning go into dinner itself, but everyday family scheduling happens then as well.
Commitment plays another key role in successful family mealtime gatherings. According to Fiese, routine commitment to mealtime expresses itself in how the task is accomplished and how the meal begins and ends. For example, for some families, the food choice of the meal is acceptable and warrants little conversation. For others, however, food choice can be the source of squabbling and bickering. Such conflicts can be associated with problematic child behaviors. To prevent this kind of conflict, parents must adopt a less rigid approach, but one that maintains a sense of order. In short, it is important to remain committed to providing meals in an orderly and regular manner, but too much insistence on a specific plan can create conflict.
While holiday dinners commonly come to mind when considering family traditions and mealtimes, Fiese believes that every meal is important. Fiese points out, “Parents who recounted their family-of-origin mealtimes as warm, supportive opportunities to gather as a group were more likely to express positive effect at the dinner table with their own children. Their children were also less likely to evidence problematic behaviors.”
Most would agree that family life is busy and finding time to gather at the table can be challenging. Fiese offers a few tips to make those important timesmanageable and rewarding for the entire family:
- Set a goal of having a family meal four times a week.
- Make one meal a week “children’s choice” night. (Examples: have dessert first, eat all blue foods-let the children decide, and help!)
- Keep marital spats away from the dinner table. Dinner is neither the time nor place to air complaints or bring out the kitchen sink of arguments.
- Have everyone identify one good thing and one “not so good thing” that happened to them during the day. (This takes the pressure off anyone who had a particularly bad day).
- Keep track of “inside jokes.” Every family has a set of inside jokes, nicknames or special foods that make them unique. What are some of the things that make your family different from other families that you know?