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The importance of eating with the kids – tips for supporting children handle transitions

An article in the Daily Mail last week started with the rather startling statement that “Fathers who don’t make it home for dinner with their families could end up with more badly behaved children.”

We weren’t sure what they meant …. That fathers who miss family meals will have more children or will their existing children’s behaviour deteriorate?!

Joking aside, we thought the article was likely to increase the overwhelm that mothers and fathers experience on a daily basis, and the dose of guilt that comes from family meals, school plays, matches and the rest due to work or other commitments. It also adds stress to mothers and fathers who are lovingly, confidently and effectively leading their families in single parent homes.

And let’s be honest here. Most of us are aware that eating meals together as a family is a good thing. (If you’ve missed this bit, family meals lead to healthier eating habits and better table manners, eventually, and also to a larger vocabulary and improved family connections, eventually!)

But many parents find eating meals with the kids frustrating, noisy, messy, exhausting and upsetting at times. Many of us would relish an opportunity to avoid them when we can!

If this is not you, and family meals are a real high point of your day, and a time with your kids that you cherish, then we’re so happy for you and whatever magic recipe you’ve discovered, keep dishing it out! And get in touch to share your secret!

But in our experience, personally and working with hundreds of families, is that family meals only become a time to cherish after a lot of hard work …

Returning to the Daily Mail article, what do these dads do that improves behaviour at the dinner-table?

The article is really all about the authoritative parenting style that blends a firm stance on behaviour - with clear and reasonable expectations and boundaries - and a warm stance on connection and approach – with plenty of understanding and empathy. It’s the ideal parenting style for every child in every family set-up. When there are two parents in a family, there is often one that brings more of the ‘firm’ and one that provides more of the ‘warm’. Typically – or stereotypically – it is dads that supply more of the ‘firm’ and mums who offer more of the ‘warm’ but it is not that simple and not always that way! And definitely not always easy ….

Every parent needs to have the emotional and physical resources, as well as the practical skills and understanding, to offer that perfect mix of firm and warm when dealing with the daily challenges of raising children particularly during family meals.

The reality is that some families have time for a family meal together each day, and some families don’t and these families can have beautifully behaved children!

It’s not a lack of eating dinner together or dinner without a dad that leads to “badly behaved children”. There are many reasons children don’t do what we expect of them. Starting with that they don’t know what’s expected of them, because often there isn’t any clarity, and one day Dad says yes to the snack, and Mum says no … and the child realises this is a smart way they can get that snack! Sometimes the child doesn’t know how to do what is asked of them. Investing time with children, helping them learn new skills, allowing them time to practice and develop healthy habits … that’s what matters.

And one of those healthy habits is conversation, and yes, absolutely, eating meals is a wonderful way to do that. So is working in the garden or walking the dog or playing a game or doing a jigsaw puzzle together. Connection is about time together. It’s also incumbent on having things to talk about. And after a long day of work, no-one wants to unload how bad their day was or talk about all the homework still left to do. It’s about getting started with conversations, sharing your own stories, having a bank of family stories that children love to go back to.

So, yes, the double act of a two-parent household can make things easier, but finding the balance between firm and warm within one person is absolutely possible …

Every parent – whether parenting together or apart - can have a wonderful positive influence on their children’s behaviour … and that’s what the first five classes in our 6-week Positive Parenting Course are all about.

When we shift our focus to give greater weight to all the things our kids are getting right, we help them to feel better about themselves. We help them develop a self-narrative that they can do hard things, that they matter, and that their effort matters more than anything.

When we respond to emotional upsets by connecting with how our children are feeling, we help them develop a greater ability to solve problems and thrive in the face of challenges.

When we set up in advance and prepare our children for what lies ahead, we help them learn self-efficacy, independence and positive habits.

When we have clarity around our rules and limits, and use them as a way to express our family values, our children learn that boundaries are there to help.

When we take time to understand our child’s unique temperament and have a basic understanding of cognitive, physical and social development we can be much more compassionate towards the learning curve that our children are on throughout their childhoods.

And once we know how to improve behaviour, then we need to understand how to manage things when kids mess up … because they will mess up in big and small ways! When we can respond calmly to those messes in a way that leaves the child knowing that there are ways they can move forward with learning, growth and connection, then behaviour improves even more!

So, yes, a family dinner is lovely. The ritual of togetherness can be magical. But there is so much more to it than simply setting the table and getting food on the plates. It’s all those small micro-moments that happen that build our child’s self-esteem and our connection.

Oh, and it doesn’t have to be dinner … A game changer for many families is to make breakfast the family meal, and it doesn’t matter if different members of the family eat different things at this time! Another top tip is to keep the food super-simple and easy for everyone to eat. It’s not about cutlery and tables, so picnics may suit your family better at first. And if you’re struggling to find something to talk about, that isn’t homework or table manners, let us know because we’ve got a lovely long list of interesting questions to get conversations with children off to a great start!