Recently, a study showing that family dinners helped blunt some of the effects of cyber-bullying on teens and improved their mental health in general has been making the rounds. Part of the reason it's getting so much attention is that sitting down to eat as a family holds a particularly special place in American society — family dinners are shorthand, basically, for "good" families in which everyone takes the time to appreciate and communicate with each other.
But this isn't realistic for a lot of families, and a study in the journal Contexts helps explain why.
"We wanted to understand the relationship between this ideal that is presented in popular culture and the realities that people live with when it comes to feeding their children," says Dr. Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the ongoing study.
The researchers interviewed 150 female caregivers in families with children between the ages of 2 and 8, as well as conducting in-depth observations of 12 of these families for a total of 250 hours.
"We found that middle-class, working-class, and poor families faced some similar challenges," says Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at NC State who co-authored the paper. "For example, mothers from all backgrounds reported difficulty in finding time to prepare meals that everyone in the family would be willing to eat."
In addition, middle-class mothers reported being torn between their desire to spend quality time with their children and the expectation that they needed to provide the children with a home-cooked meal.
For poorer families, of course, there were more pressing economic concerns, to the point that some of them didn't have access to the kitchen tools they'd need to cook.
So sure, family dinners are great and a worthwhile goal. But they're also yet another example of American families being put in a tough position: From its low minimum wage to its almost nonexistent parental-leave policies, the U.S. does a worse job supporting family life and child-rearing than most other rich countries, and yet the language surrounding these issues here is steeped in judgement and utterly unrealistic expectations about people's ability to juggle an impossible number of conflicting responsibilities.