The family that dines together

Research bears out the importance of family dinners to a child's stability and well-being.

I cannot recall in my lifetime a man elevated to the presidency who was consciously abandoned by his father as a small child. Barack Obama is eloquent and open about the pain his father's absence caused. But even amid such candor, these things often repeat themselves in the generational life of a family. The president-elect is likewise refreshingly honest about how his political life has pulled him away from his own children. As The New York Times reported two days after the election, "Since 1996, when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, Mr. Obama has spent long periods away from home, and by his own admission, he is a part-time parent at best. The past six years have been a particularly punishing set of marathons, as he ran for a United States Senate seat, then spent weekdays in Washington, then traveled on the presidential campaign trail for nearly two long years." But the president-elect has announced the best-possible solution to his previous absenteeism: family dinners. "His election," The New York Times concluded, "will help realize a long-held, cherished family dream: For the next four years, the Obamas will finally eat dinner together." CLOSE YOUR eyes for a moment and picture the enormity of the spectacle. The most powerful man on earth, leaving the emergencies of the Oval Office during an economic meltdown, every night at about 6 p.m., to show his children that the world can wait. They come first. This is precisely the change we need. And with that kind of example being set, is there any Mom or Dad on earth who can claim to be too busy to have dinner with their kids? It has long been my cherished dream to establish a national campaign to "Turn Friday Night into Family Night," encouraging American parents to give their children one uninterrupted night a week without the distraction of all the electronic noise generated by TV, iPods, DVDs, and the telephone. A night where children can finally feel that their parents shut out the world to put them first. And while this can happen on any night, Friday is best because it sets a tone of togetherness for the rest of the weekend so that the family can feel closer and hopefully choose to spend even more time together. A TSUNAMI of research bears out the importance of family dinners to a child's stability and well-being. Studies by Columbia University and the University of Minnesota found that teens who do not have regular family dinners are three and a half times more likely to abuse drugs. Researchers at Columbia also found that teenagers who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to smoke daily and get drunk monthly. Girls who have regular family dinners with their parents are one-third less likely to develop unhealthy eating habits like anorexia or abuse diet pills. But for many families eating dinner together is a rarity often performed in front of a blaring TV. On my radio show, a woman called in and asked my advice to get her husband to stop bringing a newspaper to every family dinner. Don't parents realize that when they leave the TV on or bring reading material to the table they are telling their kids, "You bore the heck out of me"? Scenarios like these account for why one of the highest goals of American teenagers today is get on shows like American Idol and be famous. When you don't get the love you need, attention becomes a desperate, though ultimately unfulfilling, substitute. And the neglect is getting worse. Over the last 20 years there has been a massive decline in the number of families who eat dinner together, with more than a third reporting that they have irregular dinners at best and one out of ten admitting that they never eat dinner together at all. For those who do, it's a pretty limited affair, lasting about 26 minutes. But here's the best part. About 60 percent of families eat dinner with the TV on and 70% regularly answer the phone! That's why Turn Friday Night Family Night, which aspires to have three million families signing up at by December 2009, is all about rooting out any and all electronic distractions so that one night a week, at least, children and parents can be heard. This was the gift that was given to me as the child of a family that was Sabbath observant. But the full focus of parents on their children, for at least one night a week, should be the birthright of every boy and girl, not just the Jews, the Amish, and the Seventh Day Adventists. Just imagine how our teenagers personalities would blossom if for one night a week they could be pulled away from all the electronic junk that is making them passive, lazy, and deadening their brains. Our teens don't know how to interact with other people, immersed as they are in an electronic reality where they text instead of speak and where the only 'face' they encounter is the first syllable of a popular social networking site. The result is a bland personality and a blank stare. Teens seem to come alive today only when left alone. MY GOAL, which is now the primary campaign of This World: The Jewish Values Network, is to gift the Sabbath to the world and return us to the salons of old, a time before television when family togetherness revolved around stimulating conversation and laughter rather than watching a movie together. Our plan follows a 2/2/2 theme: two hours of family dinner, with the family inviting two friends as guests, and with two subjects suggested for all to discuss. It's better if the kids invite the guests since it teaches them the blessings of hospitality, and the family home, rather than the local mall, becomes the preferred hangout. We plan to publish a weekly curriculum which will include topics for discussion and quizzes that parents can use to generate conversation and spark interest. We also have several leading Hollywood celebrities who will discuss the dysfunction that was fostered in their own upbringing through a lack of family time and how American families must act to correct it. AS FOR the Jewish community, isn't it about time that we become known for something other than Wall Street? America is reeling under the pain of an economic meltdown. People are looking for something wholesome with which to anchor their lives. We need family and community like never before. Let this, rather than reeling financial markets, be the gift of the Jews. Let's encourage families to invite people who have no family and singles to band together to create intelligent salons where they can meet each other instead of going to a degrading meat market at a bar on Friday nights. And as for the president-elect, we're asking him to conduct a national monthly lottery of those parents who sign up to Turn Friday Night into Family Night to join the first family at their own family dinner in the White House. So what are you waiting for? Add your name and make America into one big family. Rabbi Boteach's upcoming book, The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Restoring Erotic Passion to Life will be published by HarperOne in January.