Earlier this year, Joyce Newman, a member of the Capital City C.I.R.C.L.E.S. Initiative Board of Directors, sent me an article by David Brooks, an op-ed columnist with The New York Times. It focused on the unlikely rise of certain political figures into the national spotlight which he concluded was symptomatic of a nation in crisis.
According to Brooks, the rise in the national suicide rate, which has surged to a 30 year high, is “a sure sign of rampant social isolation.” Within the context of his article he may have been referring to isolation from the American Dream and from the national political hierarchy. However, I tend to interpret this statement more literally.
With the advent of technology, computers and cellphones in particular, never have people been more connected. The ability to interact from afar, however, doesn’t necessarily result in increased unity or a stronger sense of community. Counterintuitively, it can actually foster greater isolation as face-to-face interactions become less frequent and the launching of anonymous attacks through social media become more prevalent. While once upon a time a child could escape a playground bully by simply leaving school, now that cyber assailant can follow his victim home with sometimes devastating results.
How can we counter this sort of social isolation and promote more emotional stability in the lives of our children? The answer can be found in the dining room or kitchen of every American home. Anne Fishel, a family therapist and professor at Harvard Medical School touts the importance of staying connected through….. wait for it …. regular family dinners! According to Ms. Fishel “This daily mealtime connection is like a seat belt for traveling the potholed road of childhood and adolescence and all its possible risky behaviors.”
Research has definitively shown teens who dine on a regular basis with their families have a more positive view of the future, are less likely to become depressed and experience suicidal thoughts and are more likely to recover quickly from cyberbullying. The author is quick to point out while “a roast chicken won’t magically transform parent-child relationships,” if the interaction is positive it can foster “stronger connections away from the table” and enhance a sense of wellbeing and resiliency (my words not hers). Perhaps this is why Blue Bloods, a police drama on CBS, is so popular.
At the insistence of the show’s executive producer, in every episode there’s a Sunday dinner scene when four generations of Reagans gather at the dining room table to discuss the events that shape their lives on the job and in the home. Not surprisingly, this food focused formula for lowering barriers and creating a sense of connectedness is also a trademark of the Capital City C.I.R.C.L.E.S. Initiative. Every week, our program participants, their kids, their community allies and our staff gather at a local church to share a meal before class. It gives everyone at the table a chance to reach across social divides, to share their stories, and to reinforce their sense of connection to their extended human family.
As mothers and fathers we should all resolve at the end of the day to turn off our televisions, disconnect from our computers, our iPads and our cellphones and spend some quality time focused on our families. We may not be tending fields together like our agrarian forebears, playing cards by the light of a fire or stitching quilts on the front porch but sharing a simple meal at dinnertime can be just as fulfilling.
Shelly Aldean is President of the Capital City C.I.R.C.L.E.S. Initiative.