Come to the table!

A number of years ago Dan Kindlon, an educational psychologist, author and former faculty member at Harvard University, wrote a book entitled Too Much Of A Good Thing. Among other value insights, Kindlon explains in the book that his research indicated that one of the most influential differences between students who excelled in school and citizenship and those who misbehaved and struggled academically is that the families of the exceptional students regularly ate dinner together. Interesting that the fundamental ingredient of raising exceptional children might be something so simple, isn’t it?

Earlier this month HealthDay News posted an article reporting on a University of Minnesota study on family meals. Researches found that “positive, calm and friendly family meals might help a child avoid becoming overweight or obese.” It has been recognized for a while that regular family meals can reduce the risk of childhood obesity, so researchers decided to find out why, and to determine “whether some family meals might have a more positive effect than others.”

Their findings indicate that “Normal-weight children were more likely to have family meals during which parents offered encouraging statements and everyone seemed to enjoy each other’s company,” while obesity was connected to negativity at meal times. Healthy children also eat together with their family at focused meal settings more regularly than obese children. The study found that “30 percent of meals for overweight kids occurred in the family room, compared to 17 percent for healthy-weight children. On the other hand, 80 percent of the meals of healthy-weight kids occurred in the kitchen, compared with 55 percent for overweight children.” In other words, the actual act of eating has some merit, but the activity, behavior and conversation that accompanies the meal are significantly more important. When a family eats in the family room, for example, they are far more likely to be watching television while they eat, which means they are unlikely to be talking to each other or checking on how each other’s day went. Eating the family room to watch a movie or a favorite show can be fun, but if it becomes the routine it will diminish the health value associated with eating together.

Eating together does not need to be an elaborate production, either. While I would suggest that sitting down at the table together is valuable, it matters little whether you’re dining on fine china or paper plates. It also matters very little what you are eating (within reason, of course) or how long you spend eating it. The average length of a family meal for healthy-weight children was only 18.2 minutes. Jerica Berge, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, said, “When we looked at the logistics around the family meals, they are more doable than most people think. They don’t have to be that long to have a positive effect, and they can be any time of the day — breakfast, lunch or dinner.”

The connections between well-behaved and highly accomplished children (identified by Kindlon), healthy children (identified in the U of M study) and family dining are similar. Said Berge, family dining “gives the kid a sense of security in the world, and the sense that the kid can regulate their lives.” Children who are secure are certainly going to be more likely to succeed in school and to be meaningful, productive members of their community. Parents eating with their children can also serve as role models for healthy eating, including proper portions and proper diet (not to mention proper manners).

The presence of a “screen” during dining–whether television, cell phone, computer or video game–did not impact the health of the children in the study. In fact, approximately 60% of families of both overweight and healthy weight children had a screen on during meal times. I would suggest that eliminating the screen during most meals would add even more to the value of family meals but that is purely my opinion; I have no scientific evidence to support it. While the presence of a screen seemed not to matter, though, the study found that the presence of something else did matter–a second parent. The healthy-weight children were more likely to have both parents present at mealtime. “It could be helping keep the chaos under control, or it could be extra modeling, but it did make a difference,” Berge said. Both are possible–even probable. Probably, however, it made a difference because when two parents are present the security and stability in the home is usually increased.

“One has to ponder, if a mother and father have the intention of having a family meal, you can almost say the next idea of that is they are going to be better parents in general,” said Melinda Sothern, chair of health promotion at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health. “It’s much easier to drive through a fast-food window, or place the children in front of the TV with a frozen meal.” In other words, family meals are indicative of good parenting in general, which is why there is an association between family mealtimes and healthy, successful children. I am not suggesting that good parents never miss a family meal, never let the family eat in the family room and never eat at McDonald’s. But I am suggesting that what may seem like little things matter when it comes to parenting our children. So make the effort, and take the time, to eat meals together, as a family, at the table. Our children are worth it.

The 10/30 Window

I think it would be a fitting follow up to yesterday’s post to address the 10/30 window. Many missionaries and missions agencies discuss the 10/40 window, the area between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude that is home to the bulk of the world’s “unreached people groups,” those who have yet to hear the gospel. Wikipedia quotes the Lausanne Committee on Global Evangelization as defining an unreached people group as “an ethnic group without an indigenous, self-propagating Christian church movement.” But Eric Larsen and Jonathan Taylor of Global Youth and Family Ministries have emphasized a different group, one they have named the 10/30 Window. This is the 2.5 billion people in the world between the ages of 10 and 30.

In a January 14, 2012 article in WORLD Magazine Mindy Belz quotes Taylor as saying that these people make up “the largest unreached people group in human history, larger than the 100 largest geographically defined unreached people groups combined.”

This is the same group that Ken Ham and Britt Beemer address in their book Already Gone. Though their study focused specifically on twenty-somethings in the United States who grew up attending church and have since left, they also look at the decline in church attendance in Great Britain and the points in their book would be applicable anywhere in the world. But the 10/30 Window does not include only those who grew up attending church and left; it also includes those who have never attended church and indeed some who have never even heard the message of the gospel.

While Larsen and Taylor look at the increasing connectedness of the younger generation thanks to “media, technology, and by the predominance of English as the language of the internet,” they are also specifically concerned about what Larsen has called the “systematic adult abandonment of the young.” Belz expanded on this abandonment in her article, writing, “The very things that unite young people divide them from adults. They learn the day’s conversation topics from a social media website, not the dinner table. They go to YouTube for direction on how to change the oil in the car, not Dad. If they have a question about who took the first walk on the moon or what is an HPV vaccine, they’re more likely to google it than to ask in the car on the way home from school.”

Larsen and Belz make valid points–the technology available today does marginalize many of the things that may have created default connections between adults and children in the past. When I would ask my mother a question growing up she would always say, “look it up.” Such an instruction now–if I even asked, as Belz suggested I wouldn’t–would likely send me to the internet, not the encyclopedias my mother had in mind when she gave that reply. (Most of today’s youth wouldn’t have a clue what an encyclopedia even is!). But technology is not the exclusive domain of youth; my grandfather was texting long before I was! Nor should the fondness that the younger generation often has for technology become an easy excuse for adults to allow the separation between generations to expand.

For example, if a child does ask who took the first step on the moon, an adult could answer the question and then go with the child to look up more information about the event, or could just go right to the computer with the child to look it up together. A child and an adult could watch a how-to video on YouTube together and then practice what they had learned. In other words, technology is a tool that can actually be used to draw generations together just as easily as drive them apart.

Larsen made this plea to Belz: “We are calling on an entire adult population to turn its hearts to the young.” The world does need an adult population willing to do that. And technology can help, but many of the very same things that have worked well throughout history are just as effective today. Back in 2003 Harvard professor of child psychology Dan Kindlon wrote Too Much of a Good Thing in which he examined what separates the successful young people from those who are not-so-successful; what makes the difference between those who are emotionally mature and responsible from those who are, well, we’ll just go with “not.” The book description includes this introductory sentence: “While many adolescents today have all the useful accessories of a prosperous society–cell phones, credit cards, computers, cars–they have few of the responsibilities that build character.” Guess what one of the most significant differences discovered by Kindlon happened to be? Those young people who were successful, mature and responsible had dinner together with their family at least a few times a week. That is an easy thing to do, and it makes a significant difference. And I would encourage parents to make it clear that technology will not be used during dinner. No texting, to talking on the phone, not even watching TV. Interact with each other.

The 10/30 Window is specifically about reaching the younger generation with the gospel, and Kindlon certainly was not addressing that. But the fact is, relationships between adults and young people need to be developed before the gospel can be effectively shared. As important as missionary efforts are–within and without the 10/40 Window–perhaps even more important is the 10/30 window, and we do not need to go anywhere to start making a difference in that area. Every adult has children in their lives–or could, with very little effort–whether they be biological family members, neighbors, youth league sports participants or attendees at church. Start building bridges between the generations, investing a little time now that could make a difference for eternity.