Family Dinners: Myths and Modernization
Inside Mishawaka High School, English 111 teacher, Mrs. Dee Dee Gerber, begins each school year with a unit called The Myth of the Modern Family. Throughout the unit, students explore a popular phenomenon concerning the nostalgia that many Americans feel toward the 1950s, as it was, “the ideal time for children to grow up in,” according to a 1996 poll by Knight-Ridder News Agency. Gerber’s students spend the first two months of the school year analyzing works such as Gary Soto’s Looking For Work and Stephanie Coontz’s What We Really Miss About The 1950s, among others, to determine why the 1950s is such a nostalgic period.They find that food and its familial connotation was a quintessential part of the era’s appeal.
In the seven decades since, food has revolutionized as society has modernized. The historical significance of that lesson extends far beyond Gerber’s college-level curriculum for her senior students. In 2017, Reynolds Wrap released a rebranding advertisement showcasing the versatility of a “traditional” family dinner. An August 2022 article from studyfinds.org questioned whether family dinners were becoming “a thing of the past.” Are they?
A school wide poll conducted in September revealed that 63.4 percent of MHS students think that family dinners are still important.
“[The dinner table] is a nice place to forget arguments throughout the day…I think it’s a great place to resolve things,” said sophomore River Butler. Freshman Gabe Mehling agreed, “I like the fact that I can talk about my day with others around me, while I’m enjoying a meal.”
Yet, 57.9 percent of students feel like they are not connecting with their families at meal times.
There is a disconnect between the definition and connotation of family dinner. While some students, like Butler, have found ways to bridge the two by “...bann(ing) politics at the dinner table because that really gets in the way of connecting with people,” others, like freshman Delaney Richter, think it’s best to eat separate from family members, “because we’re loud…[Family members] shout sometimes, and they flick food. I don’t want food in my food.”
As a teacher, the variety of family dinners is something that Gerber was primarily unaware of. “I thought everybody was like me, and I had…loving parents…a warm opening environment… Then I got into teaching, and I really saw what students experience.
“It opened my eyes to the perspectives of other people and what [students] experience on a day to day basis. It was vastly different from what I experienced [growing up], and it wasn’t even just that some [perspectives] were different, it was that so many of them were different,” said Gerber.
Statistics back those “many different perspectives.” The graph below shows poverty line data in St. Joseph County circa 2018 (Pre-pandemic).
“It’s very big in Mishawaka,” said Gerber. “It’s one of the reasons why…I have granola bars every day [available in the classroom], why I give cups, why I have supplies for students who need them, because the amount of students who don’t have the resources is really high. A lot of them are afraid to ask, unless you just put it out there... I never turn anybody down because I know that [the trickle down effect] will happen, and that the people who really need [resources] will feel okay taking them.”
Even statewide, poverty remains an issue:
(Source: feedingamerica.org) SNAP is the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program.
“We have lost perspective of what other people go through,“...It’s all secretive. Nobody wants to share [struggles]. They want to keep everything, ‘Oh, I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed that I have this problem.’” We’ve gone into this selfish, ‘It’s all about us’ [philosophy], but then we don’t share each other’s burdens either,” said Gerber, making reference to barn raisings and America’s puritanical, prideful roots.
Gerber is one who finds importance in family dinners, not necessarily the food itself, as it is “materialistic,” but “...when we make it a priority to sit down and talk together, then I notice that the mood lightens with my kids…It’s not so much about them hearing us [parents], as it is connecting with them, and findinging out what’s important [in] their lives, and feeling like they have some importance beyond just living in a household.” Unfortunately, it’s not the same all across MHS. “My parents don’t like hearing what I have to say,” said Richter.
(Source: hoosierdata.in.gov via US Census Bureau)
Family dinners, whether typical or atypical, involve all types of families. The graph displays the demographics of households in St. Joseph County circa 2020.
Coming from two different households, sophomore Aeryelle Tavernier said, “[Quality of interaction] just depends on whose house I’m at.
“If I’m at my mom’s house, then, like nobody eats dinner together. We’re all alone and isolated because [of] the family issues there, as opposed to my dad’s house. Everybody’s more interactive with each other…We always try to make sure there’s enough food for everybody, everybody’s getting enough [to eat], and we clean up together.”
In today’s modern era of convenience, it’s second nature for the masses to blame technology for society’s shortcomings, but, as Gerber said, “…I think it has more to do with the fact that we get so into routines.…I think that [technology is] what we use as the excuse for disconnection. At any point, we could put it down and go do [get lost in] something else... I think it’s convenient for us to get lost in, and it’s easier to get in your own stuff than to really invest in somebody else.”
Technology is not directly correlated to disconnection. Freshman Gavin Papa, who thinks that family dinners are still important “...because you can share the important part of your day with everybody…,”said that at his “every other day” family dinners, “Phones are allowed [at the table] as long as we all decide we have nothing else to talk about.”
There is no right or wrong way to have family dinners. Some, like senior Sarah Burns, are so tired at the end of the day they “just eat dinner and watch TV,” with their family. Others, like sophomore Hunter Dunnuck, have busy work schedules and “usually don’t get home until after 8pm some days,” prompting them to heavily rely on fast food independently. Additionally, there are those facing a lack of substance. Even Butler, who’s family “talks, eats food, and bonds over food” at dinner time, wishes there was more “engagement” at the table.
“In high school,” summarized Gerber, “a lot of students seem to be set in their own perspectives… A lot of them assume that that’s what everyone experiences.I had that experience when I was young… I [teach] the Myth of the Modern Family because I don’t think a lot of students realize…the differences that some of their friends that they assume are just like them experience.”