Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Family Dinner: an Endangered Species

I've written about the importance of free play in children's everyday life. Now I'm going to move on to another important topic: the family dinner.

More and more families find they are rushed from program to meeting etc. and their increasingly busy schedules and longer work hours mean they skip family meals. When this happens, everyone loses out, especially the children.

What is so important about eating together?
One important benefit of stopping to eat a healthy, home-cooked meal together is that it's a good way to help model healthy eating and cooking habits to your children. While that might not be practical every night, making it a priority over processed or restaurant eating will send a clearer message than endless memorizing of serving sizes and food groups.

Besides the meal itself, the family dinner provides a time for family members to come together and discuss their day. It gives family members a chance to come together, reconnect and share their experiences. It allows family members to better understand each other. It gives children a chance to learn and practice important communication skills.

If we leave the important job of learning communication skills to school time, we do our children a disservice. A school classroom typically consists of 25-30 students and one teacher. Occasionally, there is a second adult (resource teacher, etc.) also available. This means that most opportunities for communication, especially oral communication, are severely limited by group size alone. Most talking done in school happens either by teachers to students in a one-way fashion, or between classes with peers. Communication with peers is important. So is the ability to communicate with adults. When children communicate with adults, their language and communication skills are challenged in different ways than they are when communicating with peers. Those who regularly converse with adults tend to have a broader vocabulary and speak with greater clarity than those who do not.

Children who develop confidence in speaking with adults who are willing to listen and converse with them learn to value their own input.

Another benefit to the family dinner conversation is the potential for meaningful discussion. Current events, family events, and day-to-day happenings provide opportunities to discuss various values and viewpoints. This invites family members, especially (but definitely not exclusively) children, to reflect on their own values and beliefs, and exercise critical thinking skills. Parents might encourage their children to think about other viewpoints, or brainstorm possible solutions to problems. Children might introduce issues and concerns to parents. Doing so provides an opportunity to practice communication with adults in a safe way, with adults they can trust to be caring and supportive. Adults can be good listeners, and ask appropriate questions to help the child think of things in more depth, with more breadth (what other factors might be involved) or from different angles.

One thing to remember when discussing tricky or controversial topics, especially ones to which you have your own strong opinions, is to express your opinions as opinions and not facts. It's OK to tell your kids how you feel and why you feel that way, but it is not OK to demand that they adopt your views at face value. If your wish is to help your children grow as thinking individuals, it is important to expose them as objectively as possible to a variety of viewpoints and let them draw their own conclusions. It is equally important to expect their views to change as they learn and grow.

Some kid-friendly recipes can be found here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

More About Child Empowerment

I just finished reading Free the Children by Craig Kielburger. This is one person who shows what an empowered child with determination can accomplish.

One thing he mentions often in the book is that in all the organizations he contacted that were working towards the welfare of children, none of the advocates or advisers themselves were youth or children. As with most other facets of life, adults were calling all the shots when it came to the children, and there was no real desire to change this.

Thankfully, Craig helped pave the way for youth to become involved in issues that affect them. But we need to do more. As a society, we need to recognize the important contributions that children can and should be making towards their future. It is no longer acceptable or desirable for adults to marginalize children. Children's voices need to be heard. Being young is not a disease to be overcome, nor is it a handicap. Youth have energy and a vested interest to make a positive difference in the world. They have a right to invest their energy into their futures.

Contrast this with some kids we know locally. These kids are screen and electronic gadget addicts, who have little interest in the real world. How did that come to be? Could it be that dinnertime conversations about world events no longer take place in their household? Do the parents believe that the children should be sheltered from the "harsh realities of the world"? Or is it just a little easier, a little more convenient to let them follow the status quo?

Not long from now those children will be adults. They will have the ability to vote. They will need to find ways of earning a living. They will need to work through personal and business relationships. They will need basic living skills such as cooking. cleaning, and planning a budget. They will be faced with an onslaught of decisions to make. How well prepared will they be?

I've heard so many adults condone over-scheduling kids' free time by rationalizing that "I'll know where they are and what they're doing" (control) or "it will keep them out of trouble" (assuming that anything the child might plan would be problematic--and showing a sad lack of trust in the child).

I have posted on Twitter and on this board about the necessity of free, regular, unstructured outdoor play in children's lives. We also need to allow them to become involved in the "civilized" world around them (and yes, the word "allow" is intentional here). We need to teach them coping skills then trust them to use them. It is not unreasonable for a 12 year old to use public transit. It is unreasonable to cloister our children and do everything for them, then expect them to miraculously grow into mature, capable adults.

We need to answer our children's questions honestly and completely, and admit when we do not know the answers. We need to encourage them to find out more. We need to ensure they know how to go about learning more--whether it be learning how to use an online library catalogue, interview experts, or simply make a phone call. We need to encourage them to develop their communication skills effectively. Part of that means including them in adult conversations. We need to listen and show we value their input, and we need to ask them questions to help them clarify their thoughts as well as their speech.

When we shelter children to the truth and to the negative aspects of the world around them, we do them a disservice. Children know that the world isn't perfect. Trying to hide it can make them nervous or anxious. Eventually, they will learn about it for themselves, and if they are unprepared, it can become devastating. Better they learn about the issues and become empowered to act.

Click here for my original article about child empowerment.