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During the holiday season, we may find many settings where both food and conversation are plentiful. Gathering for meals and interactions with family members, especially those with differing opinions, can be wonderful opportunities to teach our kids the value of connectedness.

Family meals, be they weekday dinners or large holiday gatherings, offer tremendous benefits for children. Mealtimes provide a chance for family members to catch up on events of the day, provide support, discuss news, tell stories, solve problems, have fun, and plan.

  • Family mealtime is associated with strengthening families, improving nutrition, and facilitating child development.
  • For young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read to aloud. One study showed that young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids with a larger vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
  • For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports, or doing art.
  • Teens who ate family meals five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get As in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.
  • Regular family dinners are also linked to lowering the risks of a host of teenage behaviors parents fear: suicide, smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders, and sexual activity.

Family rituals, such as a Thanksgiving dinner followed by football games, facilitate an increase in a child’s and a family’s sense of social connectedness, and such connectedness may serve to protect kids and teens from the development of anxiety or depression.

Comforting and emotionally stable adult relationships have a significant impact on a child’s overall mental health outcomes. At the same time, holidays can add stress to already hectic schedules and family routines. While stressful days and moments are normal, high levels of stress that continue for long periods of time can negatively affect a child.

Indiana families often effectively work through stressful situations, talking and connecting with one another. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health,

  • 65.6% of Hoosier parents report handling the day-to-day demands of raising children “very well.”
  • 47.8% of Hoosier families talk together when facing problems.
  • 86.0% of Hoosier families are more likely to work together to solve family problems “all of the time” (46.5%) and “most of the time (40.4%).
  • 65.3% of Hispanic families in Indiana are more likely to stay hopeful even in difficult times “all of time” compared to their peers: Black 61.3%, all other kids 56.8%, and white 47.9%.

One of the best things we can do to help our kids navigate stressful situations, whether in extended family gatherings or daily interactions, is to teach them effective civil discourse skills. The goal should be to help our children have calm, balanced conversations about controversial issues, something many adults struggle to do, let alone model.

The ability to study a problem, understand the opinions and arguments on all sides, and discuss it with others to see what agreements or solutions are available, is a highly valuable skill to learn. Some of the suggested key steps of teaching and modeling civil discourse include:

  • Listen with patience – hearing another person’s position, in their own terms, takes patience and focus. Yet this critical first step is crucial to building empathy. The information gained also can help determine if there is common ground to be found or if continuing the conversation may be a waste of time.
  • Be willing to be wrong – be open to new arguments and ideas. Check facts on both sides. This step can mean acceptance of new facts and/or letting go of your own incorrect facts or assumptions. It means letting go of invalid information, a self-acknowledgement that is difficult for many.
  • Respect opposing views – the ability to show respect for the right to hold differing positions is crucial. You can disagree with an individual’s perspective while still consistently showing respect for the person holding those views.

In a world with an abundance of finger-pointing and heated discussions, your holiday gatherings can be a way to show your kids a different, more productive path. Shared meals and traditions, enhanced with positive civil discourse, may be the best gift we can give our children.