Kiwi kids re­veal frus­tra­tions with busy par­ents

This gen­er­a­tion don't use knives and forks – be­cause we never show them how

Sunday Star-Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Kids who sit down for fam­ily din­ners are health­ier and smarter, re­search re­veals. But time-poor par­ents are deny­ing them the chance. Ewan Sar­gent in­ves­ti­gates.

Each night 13-year-old Ava Martin, of Eller­slie, does some­thing most of her friends don’t. She has din­ner with her fam­ily. Ava, her two sis­ters and brother, mum and dad, al­ways eat to­gether be­tween 6pm and 6.30pm. As they eat they talk about the day they have had. No de­vices, no TV. Just eye con­tact with each other. ‘‘Meals are very, very im­por­tant to us,’’ mum Char­lotte Martin says. ‘‘I grew up that way. Fam­ily meal times were al­ways the time when we sat down and dis­cussed the day’s events and any is­sues peo­ple might have. I was very adamant when I had a fam­ily that I wanted to carry on that tra­di­tion. And we still do that with my par­ents ev­ery Sun­day when we have a din­ner.’’ Most fam­i­lies are go­ing the other way. We are let­ting this sim­ple ana­logue meal­time face-to-face con­nec­tion slip out of our lives. A study by in­de­pen­dent re­searcher Sarah Wool­lett, com­mis­sioned and de­vel­oped by My Food Bag and Stuff, re­veals we’re eat­ing at home and to­gether less of­ten. The just-re­leased Fam­ily Din­ners survey in­volved 521 chil­dren and 630 adults across the coun­try. It paints a pic­ture of fewer fam­ily meals to­gether, of stressed par­ents work­ing late and out-of sync-hours, of take­aways and of eyes star­ing at screens in­stead of each other. Par­ents know some­thing is wrong be­cause – in their own words – they feel guilty. A gen­er­a­tion ago, three­quar­ters of chil­dren ate din­ner with their par­ents ev­ery night. This survey in­di­cates that now, only 51 per cent of fam­i­lies eat ev­ery din­ner at home to­gether. One of the sad­der find­ings is that while 96 per cent of chil­dren see din­ner as a great chance to chat to par­ents, 79 per cent wish they could have more din­ners to­gether as a fam­ily. Rea­sons why adults wished they could have more din­ners at home in­cluded: ‘‘quality fam­ily time’’ (32 per cent); ‘‘it’s cheaper’’ (16 per cent); ‘‘it’s health­ier and more nu­tri­tious’’ (10 per cent); ‘‘it’s a chance to catch up’’ (8 per cent); ‘‘it’s bet­ter-tast­ing or bet­ter food’’ (7 per cent). Re­gional dif­fer­ences can also be seen and Auck­lan­ders seem par­tic­u­larly stressed. When asked if cook­ing din­ner at home was a real chore, 31 per cent of Auck­lan­ders agree, com­pared to 26 per cent in Taranaki, Manawatu and Welling­ton; 25 per cent in Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gis­borne, Hawke’s Bay and Can­ter­bury; then down to 19 per cent in the rest of the South Is­land. When all the in­for­ma­tion is com­bined and the sim­ple ques­tion posed of who is the most con­cerned about din­ners, chil­dren and healthy habits, those most wor­ried are Auck­lan­ders, $100,000-plus earn­ers and un­der­35s. The least con­cerned are Cantabri­ans, over-55s, and peo­ple aged 45-54 years. My Food Bag founder Na­dia Lim says the re­sults are more shock­ing than she ex­pected. And sad. ‘‘I 100 per cent be­lieve in the magic of bring­ing peo­ple to­gether around the din­ner ta­ble, hav­ing had that in my fam­ily. I was re­ally lucky to have par­ents who ad­vo­cated for that so we just want to find out what the state of it is.’’ Her Dad was firm around meal­times. ‘‘You had to stop what­ever you were do­ing and come to the din­ner ta­ble at the time it was served and no-one could pick up their fork or knife un­til ev­ery­one was there. Man he was strict.’’ FAM­ILY TIME At the time she thought he was a meanie to stop The Simp­sons half­way through. ‘‘But I’m glad now.’’ So what are fam­i­lies who don’t do fam­ily din­ners miss­ing out on? Quite a lot it seems. Auck­land Univer­sity as­so­ciate pro­fes­sors Dr Jen­nifer Ut­ter and Dr Si­mon Denny have stud­ied the links be­tween fam­ily meals and ado­les­cent well­be­ing. Ut­ter says their re­search shows that ado­les­cents who share fre­quent fam­ily meals re­port bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with their fam­i­lies, bet­ter eat­ing be­hav­iours and bet­ter in­di­ca­tors of emo­tional well­be­ing. Denny, a pae­di­a­tri­cian at the Cen­tre for Youth Health in South Auck­land, has been deeply in­volved in the Youth 2000 Na­tional Youth Health and Well­be­ing Sur­veys which now cover 25,000 sec­ondary school stu­dents. He says stu­dents who have four or five meals a week at home with their fam­i­lies are health­ier be­cause they eat bet­ter food, smoke fewer cig­a­rettes (and less mar­i­juana), are less de­pressed and less likely to at­tempt sui­cide. The as­so­ci­a­tion is clear. Much more re­search has been done over­seas, and cam­paigns have been launched to re­mind peo­ple how much fam­ily meals mat­ter. A leader in this is Har­vard Med­i­cal School clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Anne Fishel, a founder of the Fam­ily Din­ner Project. In her blog she writes how as a fam­ily ther­a­pist, ‘‘I of­ten have the im­pulse to tell fam­i­lies to go home and have din­ner to­gether rather than spend­ing an hour with me’’. She lists find­ings from 20 years of re­search in North Amer­ica, Europe and Aus­tralia and it’s a com­pelling de­fence of bums on seats eat­ing and talk­ing. They in­clude the dis­cov­ery that din­ner­time con­ver­sa­tion boosts young chil­dren’s vo­cab­u­lary even more than be­ing read aloud to, and reg­u­lar meal­times are a bet­ter pre­dic­tor of high achieve­ment scores for schoolkids than time spent in school, do­ing home­work, play­ing sports or do­ing art. Fishel also men­tions the Kiwi work of Ut­ter and Denny, which shows fam­ily meal teens have more pos­i­tive moods. She writes: ‘‘Din­ner may be the one time of the day when a par­ent and child can share a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence – a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story – and th­ese small mo­ments can gain mo­men­tum to cre­ate stronger con­nec­tions away from the ta­ble.’’

So far it’s over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence. But ask Denny what magic the din­ners are weav­ing and it gets a lit­tle in­ter­est­ing. ‘‘That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,’’ he replies. ‘‘It’s ei­ther healthy fam­i­lies are more likely to have fam­ily meals, or it could be some­thing to do with the fam­ily meals. We don’t quite know which way that ar­row goes.’’ Denny says a ran­domised in­ter­ven­tion­ist study is needed which, to put it lightly, would be tricky to or­gan­ise with real fam­i­lies. Some would have meals to­gether and oth­ers wouldn’t. Then the dif­fer­ences would be mea­sured. He’s been in­volved in a small fea­si­bil­ity study to see if in­ter­ven­tion is pos­si­ble. Fam­i­lies were given free meal kits and the deal was that in re­turn they had to eat to­gether, have no de­vices on dur­ing the meal and the chil­dren had to help cook. Denny says the small study showed be­hav­iours could be changed with in­ter­ven­tion, but the ap­proach had some prob­lems. Although the fam­i­lies re­ported be­ing hap­pier and health­ier, it’s pos­si­ble that get­ting free meals and bet­ter food con­trib­uted. ‘‘When we gave fam­i­lies meal kits we were also giv­ing them money as well in terms of the cost that would I of­ten have the im­pulse to tell fam­i­lies to go home and have din­ner to­gether rather than spend­ing an hour with me. Anne Fishel Har­vard Univer­sity clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor have cost them. We tar­geted some of the poorer com­mu­ni­ties and the fam­i­lies just loved it.’’ Some fam­i­lies’ com­ments about food choices were re­veal­ing. ‘‘Poor fam­i­lies can’t af­ford for money to be wasted if the kids don’t eat the food. So in some sense they were re­luc­tant to buy veg­eta­bles in­stead of take­aways be­cause they know young peo­ple will eat that food,’’ Denny says. Food is also where they make sav­ings when times are hard. ‘‘They have to pay their rent, they have to pay power, but food is the first thing to get cut when it comes

to health­ier op­tions. Un­for­tu­nately, food out­side the home looks cheap. If you are try­ing to work two jobs and jug­gle all that other stuff, you can un­der­stand why the num­ber of peo­ple pur­chas­ing food out­side the home rather than prepar­ing it is in­creas­ing,’’ Denny says. But even with­out the proof of a big in­ter­ven­tion­ist study, he sus­pects fam­ily meals do good. ‘‘There is a rou­tine as­pect to it, like just the fact the teenagers or chil­dren know it hap­pens ev­ery day. And it is a chance to sit down and talk. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion stuff is very im­por­tant.’’

It’s Fri­day night at Mc­Don­ald’s in Sy­den­ham, Christchurch. Andrew Quinn has taken his two chil­dren, aged 5 and 8, for a bite of din­ner be­fore head­ing out to play a cricket match. Their mum works in the evenings, so hav­ing take­aways on a Fri­day takes the pres­sure off to help them man­age their com­mit­ments. ‘‘I’d say any time you sit down with your kids, it’s about the quality you put into it,’’ Quinn ex­plains. ‘‘It doesn’t mat­ter if you’ve gone and got a pizza and you’re sit­ting at home.’’ ‘‘It’s all about how you run your meal time and in­ter­act with your kids.’’ For Quinn and oth­ers, it’s the time with your kids that mat­ters, talk­ing about their day – not the where or the when.

ToughLove New Zealand trainer Sytske Olden­burger has no doubt that fam­ily din­ners make fam­i­lies stronger and bet­ter. She’s quick to tell strug­gling par­ents about the ben­e­fits. ‘‘Ab­so­lutely. It re­ally as­sists ado­les­cents open­ing up com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels. It’s good for kids who may have shut down. You will have kids shar­ing in­for­ma­tion rather than par­ents try­ing to be po­lice of­fi­cers and pry in­for­ma­tion out of them. It can make a huge dif­fer­ence.’’ Olden­burger says that at the heart of it, fam­i­lies are about co­op­er­a­tion. A meal to­gether is the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of that. ‘‘It’s non co-op­er­a­tion when kids grab their food and then hi­ber­nate to the bed­room. Maybe some par­ents pre­fer their kids to eat like dogs in the bed­room, I don’t know, but prob­a­bly most fam­i­lies would con­sider bed­rooms are for home­work or sleep­ing and the din­ing room or break­fast bar is where you eat food.’’ Olden­burger says the world has changed but the power of the fam­ily meal hasn’t. ‘‘Three gen­er­a­tions ago Dad came home at 5.30, per­haps had a beer and kicked the ball with the kids, and at 6 o’clock ev­ery­body sat down to the din­ner ta­ble. ‘‘Nowa­days kid A has got sport, kid B has got mu­sic, kid C has got some­thing else, Dad is work­ing late to pay the mort­gage and Mum is try­ing to be a taxi driver.’’ She has seen im­me­di­ate pos­i­tive re­sults when fam­i­lies re­vive the din­ner tra­di­tion, even start­ing with just one night a week.

Back in Eller­slie, and the Martin fam­ily have gath­ered for din­ner. Tonight it’s chicken with mashed potato, broc­coli and car­rots. Sim­ple, healthy food on a ta­ble with a can­dle cen­tre­piece. But it’s not the food that’s magic here. The Martins are fa­ther Jeff, who works in IT, Char­lotte, who works part-time in re­tail and is the main week­day cook, and Eden, 21, Blake, 16, Ava, 13, and Keira, 10. There’s an ex­pec­ta­tion ev­ery­one makes din­ner and they need to call and say if they can’t. There’s no TV blar­ing, no cell­phones al­lowed on the ta­ble and con­ver­sa­tion must be pos­i­tive to­wards oth­ers. A cou­ple of quirky fam­ily tra­di­tions also un­der­line this is bond­ing time. The 14-year-old Martin Cup is a small tro­phy car­ry­ing lol­lies. Jeff and Char­lotte are judges and it’s awarded based on the week’s achieve­ments. The other is Martin Kitchen Rules. For one week ev­ery­one cooks a sur­prise main and dessert for the rest of the fam­ily (some with help from Char­lotte). Youngest Keira says she looks for­ward to the din­ners and likes telling her fam­ily about her day. ‘‘Be­cause my fam­ily and the peo­ple that I love are there, so it is spe­cial that we are hav­ing fam­ily time.’’ It’s a glimpse of fam­ily life that fewer Ki­wis are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. They have no idea how much they are miss­ing.

Char­lotte Martin and daugh­ter Ava prepar­ing din­ner for the fam­ily. DAVID WHITE/STUFF

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