By Linna Ettinger
Something as simple as properly setting the table can mean the difference between a happy childhood and an anxiety ridden childhood. Research shows that the custom of sharing family meals has declined by more than 30% in the US over the past thirty years (American College of Pediatricians, “The Benefits of the Family Table,” May 2014). A variety of factors have led to the steady decline, including the rushed lifestyle of a dual-income family, and the increase in absorption in our screens – from phones, to television, to computers, to video games. However, it behooves families today to make a concerted effort to reclaim the protective powers of the family meal. Teens who eat family meals more often, are more protected from the dangers of anxiety, depression, and suicide (Fulkerson JA, Story M, Mellin A, Leffert N, Neumark-Sztainer D, French SA. “Family dinner meal frequency and adolescent development; relationships with developmental assets and high-risk behaviors.” Journal of Adolescent Health. September 2006; 39(3): 337-45). On a positive note, family meals can help ground our next generation, involving all voices in the family discussion and making our children feel valued, safe, and loved.
Soon, families all over the world will sit down to the family meal of all family meals, the Passover Seder. Judaism has long valued the sacredness of the family meal, with the rituals of weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners and of the annual Passover Seders. At the Passover Seder, families hone the skills of sharing family stories, asking questions, and connecting to our collective history. Traditional Passover songs bring joy and levity to the evening, as do other family traditions especially related to the search for the dessert, or Afikomen, sometimes involving bargaining and bribery. As an official Jewish holiday, electronics are traditionally forbidden from the table. The sacredness of the Passover Seder is so well respected that it is the most likely holiday for which adult children return home in order to participate in the holiday with their families. According to the PEW 2013 report about Jewish Americans, 70% of self-identifying Jews participated in a Seder in the previous year.
On a recent site visit to the Soule Early Childhood Center in Brookline, the director, Gina Tzizik, showed us some plates that her students use every day at lunchtime. These were not paper or plastic plates, but rather, real plates that their parents had designed and painted prior to the beginning of the school year. Gina explained to parents that they should think of the decorations as, “their little love notes” that they are sending to their kids on a daily basis, when they sit down for lunch.
This is a beautiful way to enable parents to express their love to their children, even while the parents are busy at work during the day. In the absence of actually being present in person, the custom designed plates are a physical connection to parental love. At the Soule ECC, teachers strive to create a home-like atmosphere by pushing together tables, setting the table with mini-pitchers for milk and water and using these beautifully painted plates, as well as real silverware. Lunchtime at the Soule ECC is a beautiful example of how to teach young children the beauty and importance of a shared meal.
As some of us prepare for Passover, where we share our collective history over a beautifully set table, we should also remember to continue to set our table even when we are not celebrating a holiday. Even without the pomp and fanfare of a Passover Seder, our family meals can continue to be a screen-free zone for all children to sit and ask questions, share stories, and feel loved and cherished. Our families will benefit, and so will our society as a whole.
Linna Ettinger is the Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College. More information about Hebrew College’s Early Childhood Institute can be found www.hebrewcollege.edu/early-childhood-institute.