Bubba Ludwig holds a football steady during a flag football game. | Howard A. Ludwig~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:17AM
The start of the school year has meant an end to family meals. School is not to blame (the final bell rings at 2:30 p.m.). It’s all of the after-school activities that have kept the Ludwig family from the dinner table.
Soccer and flag football are my two obstacles. For others, piano lessons, homework, tutors, dance classes and other interests get in the way. The result is staggered mealtimes to accommodate everyone’s schedule. Or worse, frequent trips through the drive-through.
I lamented the loss of family mealtime with Miriam Weinstein last week. The author of “The Surprising Power of Family Meals” offered several tips for keeping the mealtime tradition alive, along with a dose of reality.
“It’s good that you are asking these questions,” Weinstein said. “Because it is only going to get worse.”
Indeed, my 6-year-old son is playing flag football for the first time this year. Bubba is in his second year of soccer. On busy weeks, these two activities consume four of the five weekday evenings. And Peter hasn’t even started playing sports.
But wait a minute. I coach Bubba’s soccer team, and I’m on the sideline for every flag football game. So, aren’t these extracurricular activities also family functions? It’s not like I’m watching football on TV, while The Wife shops online in another room and the boys are hiding away playing video games and texting.
Bouncing from activity to activity isn’t necessarily bad, but time spent on the soccer field or en route in the family minivan is different than time spent around the dinner table, Weinstein said.
Conversations tend to be more fluid and relaxed at mealtime. Such discussions offer parents subtle opportunities to instill values. For example, children might share an event from earlier in the day. The reaction of the parents offers clues about how children should react or behave.
Dinner discussions as mundane as what’s on tap for the weekend offer quiet lessons. As parents discuss the pros and cons of each event, children absorb the information, Weinstein said. For example, attending grandpa’s birthday party may or may not be as important as a free ticket to the Bears game.
“I am amazed at what a high percentage of people (adults) I talk to say how important those family meals were,” Weinstein said.
She also cited an annual survey conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. The surprising findings pointed to family meals as a common thread among successful teens. Family meals played a greater role than good grades, household income or regular church attendance as it relates to teen pregnancy and drug use, Weinstein said.
For busy families, Weinstein recommended postgame hot chocolate or dessert as an alternative to family meals. Having a big Sunday morning breakfast can also fill in for missed meals. It’s the consistency of coming together as a family that’s important, she said.
Weinstein further recommended that parents look at the time commitment required of after-school activities prior to enrollment. It’s OK to scale back or opt out of such activities if you think family life will be adversely affected.
“There’s a lot of pressure to sign your kids up for a lot of these things,” Weinstein said. “But children are more likely to grow up and raise a family than they are to become a professional athlete.”
Howard A. Ludwig is a former SouthtownStar business writer who traded his reporter’s notepad for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.