Our Scared Hour Work schedules, ballgames and fast food conspire aganist the family dinner hour. Despite the headaches, most of us struggle to preserve this civilizing ritual.

July 14, 1996|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN STAFF

One night, in the ceaseless quest for family togetherness, Debbie Swiss decided the easiest place to meet for dinner was the parking lot at Loyola High School. She brought the food -- carryout fried chicken and trimmings -- as well as the most essential of dinner staples: a sense of humor.

"It was like the Hunt Cup, but instead of watching the horses, we watched cars leaving the parking lot and then ate dinner," she reports. "We had all the cute things you have in a picnic. We also had matching plastic dinnerware. Timmy was mortified. He said 'Mom, this looks like we're insane.' "

The family's life was pretty insane. Swiss was teaching art and physical education at three schools as well as officiating at field-hockey games. Her husband, Tom, was putting in long hours at his downtown law firm. Son Tim was rehearsing his high-school play at St. Paul's School. Daughter Sarah was caught up in Irish dancing. Daughter Katie had swim team practice every evening in the pool at Loyola High School.

Now the Swisses wince at the thought of auto dining. But they still struggle to eat dinner together regularly at their home in Roland Park.

"Norman Rockwell would have a stroke if he ever had to paint our family," Debbie Swiss observes.

Ask other parents about the Family Dinner Hour, and they're apt to respond with stunned silence. Or a frustrated snicker:

The what?

"They should change the name to the Family Five Minutes," suggests Sheppard-Pratt psychologist and mother Joy Silberg.

Despite the wisecracks, despite the time pressures, despite the memories of tense, painful meals, the concept endures. In fact, the family dinner hour -- or the eternal yearning for it -- seems to be outliving all attempts to erase it.

Just imagine:

As the sun slowly sinks in the west, family members -- some of them scarred, some of them triumphant from the day's events -- come together to replenish body and soul with a delicious home-cooked meal and conversation. They take turns talking about school and work. They ponder current events. They laugh at each others' jokes. They seek advice. They encourage one another. The phone never rings.

Now the reality:

Kids of various ages, just back from soccer and swim practice, hover around the kitchen counter while Mom divvies up the pizza just delivered. The children wolf down food, engaging in minor disputes, while Mom puts Dad's pizza on hold in the microwave and heads upstairs to finish her report for the office.

These days, parental work schedules, extracurricular activities and fast food join forces against the ideal family dinner hour. They conspire so effectively, in fact, that some people will tell you that no one eats dinner together anymore.

Not true, says Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, which runs national time-study and food surveys for food companies. "It's a mistake to believe that we always eat together, but we do most of the time," he says.

A recent survey by the Wirthlin Group found 34 percent of Americans saying they always eat dinner at home with the family and another 39 percent saying they eat family dinners frequently. A report from Working Mother magazine says 82 percent of families with working mothers dine together at least four times a week.

"The statistics don't look that bad," agrees anthropologist Margaret Mackenzie, associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. "We're always hearing drastic stuff, but more than half of the U.S. is eating their meals with the children most nights of the week.

"Quite a lot of eating meals goes on out of the home, but there's nothing wrong with that if we're talking about a goal of sharing food with one another.

"A dinner table doesn't have to be a literal table. It can be a picnic, a park bench, a tailgate. The real idea is connecting with one another and paying attention to one another."

However, many don't count the quickie meal in the minivan before Little League as genuine family dining.

"Hunger hungers for more than just fuel just as eros longs for more than having sex," writes University of Chicago professor Leon Kass in "The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature."

What parents -- and particularly mothers -- seem to crave from the family dinner hour is a relaxed, luxurious stretch of togetherness with their spouses, children and home-cooked food. They crave a regular time that's safe from outside schedules, a daily opportunity to monitor how their family is faring. They long for unhurried intimacy.

The dinner hour isn't the only way to build a rich family life, of course. But it seems to be one of the best.

"The bed defines the marriage, and the table defines the household," Kass says. "I guess I don't really understand what a family would be in the absence of a common meal."

Family history

Debbie Swiss presents her dining room as a passed-down furniture shrine to her family. Episodes from family history come easily to her here. They are rich, poignant tales filled with embarrassing moments and sudden revelations.

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