As parents, we are all concerned for our children. It starts out when they are babies where we focus on them simply being fed, clean, warm and safe. To these needs we add the emotional and psychological concerns, food intolerances, educational resources, appropriate social activities and the list goes on.
And underneath all of the activity, every parent is grappling with the same question: How do we prepare our children for the world in which they live?
According to research, the answer might be simpler than you thought.
It involves combining two elements. Meals and Stories.
Let's start with the food.
And here I'm talking not talking a fancy diet, phew! It's about eating a meal together. Any meal, bet it breakfast, lunch or dinner. It can be hard to have children sit at the table, and harder still to make them eat. There can be arguments, picky eaters, different schedules and the list goes on. And unless there is a significant benefit, a family meal can be just too much hard work.
But what if that meal together was MORE than worth the effort?According to A. Fishel PhD amongst many others, the mental health benefits to regular family meals are incredible. They are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders and tobacco use. It is also strongly associated with higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.
All from having meals together.
Wow. But why?
Because having meals together gives children an advantage. For very young children, they begin to hear and understand words and phases not found in board books or heard at the playground. Their vocabulary begins to expand significantly. In a study by Snow and Beals it was shown that children with larger vocabularies learn to read earlier, and attain better grades in school. In fact all children who eat regular family dinners tend to achieve academically compared with those who do not. This success promotes a healthy self esteem and sense of accomplishment.
I addition, the family meal teaches important life skills. These include fine motor dexterity in using utensils, taking turns, how to listen and how to respond to others. This builds their social competency and interpersonal skills that assist children throughout their life.
There has been a significant amount of research on the mealtime benefits, which I won't go into further here, but the correlation between family meals and positive outcomes is very strong indeed.
But what about when we add in the element of storytelling?
Let me be clear. When I am speaking about storytelling, I'm talking about the stories of your life and your family, where you grew up, or getting your first job ect. It is not simply sufficient to share, "I had lots of meetings today worked on a project, ate a salad roll for lunch and now I'm exhausted."
Why? Because that's a status update at best. Storytelling that adds value begins with sharing the stories of your family. The things that actually happened. The stories that are true.
So why would I suggest that knowing where your mother went to school and if she was good at maths, helps children?
Research suggests that learning family histories it is strongly correlated to helping children overcome difficulties when learning a new skill, or even deal with a national trauma such as earthquakes or flooding?
The connection is simple. When children learn their own families stories, they come to understand that they are part of a larger family. And whatever they are experiencing, there is someone who understands because they have experienced something similar.
And importantly, it didn't have to define them, or break them.
These start with the simple things. A friend moving away. Representing your school at an event, or the changes a new sibling brings. At the time these events occur the change may cause children to feel isolated and misunderstood. But the family stories allow them to have a framework to connect with. The shared experiences connect them to the shared family narrative, because whether or not you are aware of it, every family has a narrative they share.
It typically have three forms.
First, the ascending family narrative: This starts off at a low point with generations building and growing, success and hard work, upon success and further success. The second is the reverse, were you start with everything, but loose it over time.
The third the oscillating family narrative, which is the most real and healthy.
It tells all the stories, without hiding the truth that everyone has experienced both success and disappointments. This narrative shares both the job you really wanted but didn't get, and the training grandpa did to successfully run a marathon at 50. How your uncle was the first in the family to go to university as well as when the family business closed.
While the stories are simple in and of themselves, they build in your family a sense of who they are, who they are connected with, and create phycological safety.
In a world of Instagram perfection, the true stories of your family are incredibly valuable for your children. Because there is so much of life that is not perfect meals, clothes and success followed by more success.
Learning the stories of the family build resilience to deal with the everyday of life. The not so Instrgramable, but oh so very real parts. Because they happen to us all, but they don't last forever.
No matter how young, or even how adult your children are, It's always valuable to start sharing a meals together and share your own families stories.
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