The family that prays together, stays together. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs credits this saying to commercial-writer Al Scalpone, who wrote it as a slogan for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade in 1942 after which it went viral globally through a radio show in 1947.
Much has changed since then. Fewer people pray, and the ones that do rarely do it with family. So the expression was changed to a more doable "the family that eats together, stays together". As reminders go, this one is at risk of becoming as useless as the first - fewer families regularly eat together than ever before, except perhaps on weekends or on holidays when everyone is home or free at the same time.
This makes keeping the family together a bit rocky for people like me who have Richard Dawkin-loving atheist teens with an aversion to food. Sitting together at mealtimes doesn't always result in people having something to say. Family meals in my home are usually forgettable, with our teen either humouring us while he plays with his food or answering in monosyllables while gulping it down to escape to whatever non-food related activity he had to abandon for the fuel stop. I can't recall the last meaningful conversation we had over dinner.
Studies indicate this needs to change as healthy natter over dinner is as essential as the wholesome home-cooked meals being served. Regular family dinners improve mental health in adolescents, shows data from the Canadian Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children study released this week. Frequent family meals led to fewer emotional and behavioural problems, higher emotional stability, and more trusting and helpful behaviour, found the study of 26,069 adolescents aged 11 to 15 years. From having no dinners together to eating together seven night a week, each additional dinner significantly improved mental health.
Studies in the past, too, have shown that the more often families eat together, the less likely are the children to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide. It also makes them smarter, delays their having sex, makes them eat more vegetables and less junk food, and makes them fitter.
Of course, the underlying message here is mealtime conversations with all the studies nudging parents to get their child to open up to them between mouthfuls. They forget that conversations can rarely be forced and moments of genuine sharing often happen when you least expect it, such as while waiting for the school bus at the start of the day, or at bedtime, when the lights are off and it's easier to talk about heartbreaks, being bullied, and other embarrassing stuff without making eye contact.
Teens who share their intimate secrets with parents and friends have fewer headaches and low moods and are more confident in social situations than others who keep secrets, reported the Journal of Adolescence last month. Compared with those who shared secrets, the secretive ones tended to break more rules, had more physical complaints, depression and poor-quality relationships. The findings suggest that sharing secrets is an important skill in creating and maintaining close personal relationships. All the 14 to 19-year-olds surveyed came from two-parent families. Best friends were the easiest to talk to, followed by mothers, fathers, teachers, neighbours and parents of friends.
Of course, adults have to learn to listen without succumbing to the urge of telling them what to do. Most confessions are about sifting thoughts and sorting out what's inside your head, so even when your child asks you for your opinion, what they really need is another option or a set of options they can pick and choose from. Conversations, at mealtimes or otherwise, have to be about equipping them mentally about making the right choices, and not about making their choices for them.