But those 20 minutes provide an
important time for family members to reconnect, communicate and
participate in a ritual that, to the participants, symbolizes
commitment and continuity, she said. In this setting, families
experience a sense of belonging. Family members think, "This feels
right. This is who we are and who we will continue to be across
"Often, when families are in
trouble, we see it first in the disruption of their rituals," she
said. "You'll note that, after a traumatic event, families are
advised to get back to a normal routine as soon as possible.
Continuing to participate in family rituals, such as shared
mealtimes, can help families cope and perhaps make meaning out of
To show that rituals give order
to our days and help children make sense of their lives, Fiese
shared some results from her research. She asked children to tell a
story about two pictures -- one featured a pizza on a table with
chairs around it in a spotless kitchen; in the other picture, the
kitchen was messy and dirty.
When the kitchen in the
pictures was clean and organized, the children told stories about a
meal that progressed in an orderly, happy way. When the kitchen was
cluttered and disorganized, the children told stories in which
everyone was talking at once, nobody cared if they washed their
hands, and "nothing that was going on made sense."
Fiese, who videotapes family
meals as part of her research, said you can learn a lot about
families from watching them eat together. A trained observer can
detect how organized the family is, who plays dominant roles in the
family and if parents are "clued in" to what issues various family
members are facing at school or at work.
Family meals are also valuable
teaching times. On average, parents of young children seamlessly
work instruction about manners into conversation about 14 times each
mealtime. Fiese also said dinnertime conversation can give parents
an opportunity to build children's vocabulary -- for example, by
bringing out a container of "confetti" ice cream for dessert and
explaining what confetti is.
[to top of second column in
Healthy families also engage in
family storytelling during mealtimes -- from stories about what each
child did in school that day to stories about extended family
members: "This is the way Grandma used to fix apple cobbler. It was
Grandpa's favorite, but he always had to coax Aunt Jane to eat it by
teasing her like this."
Fiese quoted Gregory Curtis,
who said that daily routines are the string that ties a family
together -- that rituals are often preserved across generations and
adapted to meet the needs of the current family, which may contain
toddlers, peer-oriented adolescents and, in some cases,
The demise of the American
mealtime has been exaggerated, she said. "We have this misconception
of family life that's rooted in a nostalgic view of what life was
like in the 1950s. Ozzie and Harriet was not reality TV," she said.
The researcher was encouraged
by statistics that showed that 63 percent of families eat dinner
together frequently or always and that 86 percent agreed that
dinnertime was the best time for family members to get together and
"Family resilience doesn't just
happen," said Fiese. "It's a process that involves both flexibility
and planning. But it's important because it gives predictability and
meaning to our lives, and it gives children emotional connections
and a feeling that they belong.
"Research shows that rituals
are associated with more satisfaction in marriage, a stronger sense
of self and ease in making transitions from one life stage to
another," the psychologist added. For all these reasons, Fiese
believes that family mealtimes are a ritual well worth preserving.
[University of Illinois news