Food is the key to happy families, according to a new survey. Sitting down and eating a family meal together at least three times a week builds strong bonds between parents and their children. On the other hand, if the family breaks up, the impact on a child will be worse than living in poverty.
The study is part of a larger UK government survey called Understanding Society, which is examining the attitudes of 100,000 people in 40,000 households. “Not living with both natural parents has a greater negative impact on a young person's life satisfaction than their material situation,” states the report. “Eating an evening meal together as a family is important. Children who eat an evening meal with their family at least three times a week are substantially more likely to report being completely happy with their family situation than children who never eat with their family, or who eat together less than three times a week.”
Certainly celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem to recognise the importance of being together as they are often photographed going out to enjoy family meals. Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise are another Hollywood couple who are often spotted eating out with their daughter, Suri.
But does it really work that way? Owen Connelly, a Dublin-based counsellor and family therapist, agrees that the traditional family unit tends to be the one that works best for kids.
“I've been preaching that gospel myself for a long time and I wouldn't contradict it.” The reason, he says, is simply that children crave safety, and the traditional arrangement tends to provide that.
“Children come into a world they've never been in before and often they can interpret that world as hostile. They have to find alliances with their dad or their mum in order to have some sort of sense that it's going to be safe. The parent has to understand that safety is the priority for the child.
Exposing your child to a place without boundaries makes them feel unsafe.”
But if families do break down, he's keen to stress, it's still possible to protect children and ensure that their needs are met. In assisting parents who are going their separate ways, Connelly encourages the grown-ups to ignore their own argument and focus on the needs of the child. He'll often draw up a ‘child separation agreement'.
“We get people in who will mediate the arrangement between the couple and their children. They assure the children that adults can fall out and have difficulties and go their separate ways but they don't fall out with their child. They still love you.”
Without these kinds of supports, he says, the negative fallout from relationship breakdown can do long-term damage to children. “A little boy, because he's designed to defend, will tend to side with mum, protecting her. And he will lose his childhood because he thinks he has to be the man in the house. All of that can be prevented if they understand what the child's needs are in growing up. Yes, things might not work out for them, but they need not have that impact on the children if they follow a few simple rules.”
He agrees, too, that the simple ritual of taking an evening meal together can help keep the lines of communication open within families. It's important, though, that communication flows both ways. This isn't just another opportunity to tell the kids what to do. And it doesn't have to be a mealtime.
“Sitting down at the table might not be appropriate in every household, but what you could do is have what's called a family evening. Introduce it very early on, where it's no TV, no technology, but just games that you play together. That doesn't involve food but it involves you engaging the child in their play or their activities other than technology. When it's put into place and if it's started off very early, children will look back at that as a very special time.”
Irene Gunning is CEO of the Irish Preschool Play Association. She also sees the value in the family meal. “These are the old-fashioned rituals. Sitting down together and having a meal is one of those really important rituals. That's when you get a chance to be in relationship, to talk, be listened to, be valued. There's bonding, there's connection, there's attention given.”
But she's sceptical, too, about some of the UK report's findings, and points out that they don't necessarily apply over here. Four years ago, international children's agency UNICEF released a report on child welfare. In a league table of child well-being in rich countries, the UK came in bottom of the class, while Ireland's score earned it a mid-table position.
Gunning believes too that non-traditional families can keep mealtime rituals going just as well as in traditional family units.
She thinks, too, that the recession, despite all the negativity it has brought with it, has in some ways helped restore stability to family life.
“We lost the run of ourselves in the boom years. I constantly hear people now going back to making food together.
Even the anticipation of the meal becomes more important because you've actually made it together. There's more involvement and a deeper investment in the meal.”