The Dinner Role : Even in Hectic L.A., Ritual American Meal Endures as Time to Share Stories, Values


For generations of Americans, it was a daily ritual of childhood: "D-I-N-N-E-R!" Hands washed, the children filed into the dining room and took their places at the big table, where Mom sat at one end (nearest the kitchen), Dad at the other.

After dinner, if it was still light outdoors--and the kids had eaten their vegetables--there might be a game of Kick the Can before bedtime.

Mothers didn't go to offices in those days. They cleaned and cooked things--including dinner, which was not zapped in the microwave but was stewed or baked or fricasseed for hours. And in those days, children didn't need Filofaxes to keep track of their social-cultural-school-sports commitments.

But this is 1990, and, popular wisdom has it, family dinner time is all but extinct. Blame it on the women's movement, or Little League, or pizza-at-your-door.

Is it possible family dinner time is alive and somewhat well, even in Southern California?

Yes, in the view of Elinor Ochs, a linguistics professor who recently moved from USC to UCLA, and Thomas Weisner, a UCLA anthropology professor. Over three years, they videotaped, recorded and analyzed the dinner habits and conversations of 20 Los Angeles-area families.

In many cases, these family dinner times "didn't look like a Norman Rockwell painting," Weisner acknowledges, but there was nonetheless "order within disorder."

This was true, he says, even though, characteristically, the families initially told them, "Oh, there's no pattern. It's crazy."

But there were patterns, Ochs and Weisner found, and, Weisner says, "These were usually driven by children's schedules, and those were usually driven by school activities and after-school activities."

(Their findings mesh with those of a poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times, in which 500 households with children responded to a question about how important they considered the family dinner hour; 86% said "very important," while 66% said they regularly ate dinner as a family.)

The research project by Ochs and Weisner, "Discourse Processes in American Families," began in December, 1986, under a $600,000 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development. It focused on how family members communicate, with dinner as one arena for this socialization.

Ochs and Weisner do not suggest that the family dinner rituals that survive always resemble the idealized family meal of four or five decades ago. But, Weisner observes, despite widespread contemporary concern about how we're straying, "We're not straying too far."

The professors--aided by a team of assistants including Carolyn Taylor, Dina Rudolph and Ruth Smith at USC, and Maurine Bernstein at UCLA--studied volunteers who responded to notices they posted at UCLA, churches, preschools and other public spots.

Their criteria: Families had to be natural English speakers, European-Americans with one child of kindergarten or preschool age and at least one older sibling. Half of the 20 families were in the $20,000-a-year and under bracket; half earned $40,000 or more. There were four single-parent families.

Ochs and Weisner set out to learn what families felt was important about dinner time, the roles of family members in the dinner ritual and how family members talked to each other at dinner time. They also wanted to know how parental beliefs and values were passed on to children during dinner conversation.

Researchers interviewed families about their goals and values, and about the importance of family routines, including dinner time and bedtime. They discussed dinner-time rituals of other cultures and asked them to comment.

The following dinner-time scenario, a composite reflecting values common to other cultures, was presented to the adults to stimulate discussion:

A family prepares to eat dinner. The mother and her 9-year-old daughter cook the food and prepare the table. Then the husband, his brother, an adult male cousin of the father and the couples' teen-age son come in and are served food. The son sits on a stool next to the table, at which the three adults are eating, and sits slightly away from them. The adults take what they want first, then the son. Eating is done silently, except for requesting plates of food. After this group finishes, the mother, the daughter, two neighbor women and two younger daughters come in and eat, also with little talking. The two daughters clean up.

The example triggered conversation about sex roles, age discrimination, lack of communication. Some thought children should be served first--to get the best food. And, Weisner says, "people worried about the workload, girls and women doing all the work."

Simplified questions were presented to children. Predictably, their responses reflected their immediate concerns, such as having favorite foods and being with their families.

In their study, Weisner notes, "children are the special group" at dinner time. "Children are encouraged to initiate stories. That doesn't happen in all societies." In our society, he says, it is "a sign of social facility and intelligence. The roots of academic problem-solving are established during these dinner-time activities."

Ochs, who now is comparing ways that families solve problems through dinner-time stories with how scientists work, says, "There is definitely reason to believe there is a very strong connection" between the two.

For example, she says, family members "don't necessarily accept one version of a set of events. There's a lot of challenging one another" about reactions to events, morals or values. This interaction, she says, is "absolutely critical to children's success in a scholarly environment."

Conversational challenges--among parents, children and spouses--also give families a chance to bond against an outsider, whom they are apt to view as some terrible person who has done something awful to a family member.

Weisner says the researchers observed no "rigid, paternalistic, dominant conversation" during dinner. But, Ochs adds, "that doesn't mean there weren't gender differences."

In two-parent families, "overwhelmingly, the mothers are the ones who communicate problems and plans. Mother's quite a lot in control of the dinner activity. What it looks like is that women in these families are offering these problematic episodes to the family for problem-solving. Fathers are much less likely to offer some event in their day."

Father's role, she says, is that of evaluator, while "mother's much more willing to have her story shared."

In one recorded conversation, the mother presented her problems with an employee who felt underpaid. As was common in dinner dialogues, the employee was set up as a third-party, unity-threatening target, prompting the family to close ranks.

Ochs and Weisner initially hoped to study only families who ate in a formal, dining room setting but found that unrealistic. "I can't recall a single" family, Weisner says, that dined that way five nights a week.

But, "by and large, families do have certain days when they eat together." This, he says, shows Americans cling to their "core beliefs" that dinner should be a hallowed time without interruption.

Ochs adds: "Eating together means different things for different families."

Some sat down together; some had a staggered meal time in which people joined at different times; some ate at the same time but in different places--the children in the TV room and Mom and Dad in the kitchen.

Even when family members ate in different rooms, she says, there was "intermittent communicating," with Mom, perhaps, shuttling from room to room. Preparation and cleanup also afforded times for communication.

Obviously, Ochs says, people eating at the same time at the dinner table communicate better and more intensely. "There is a kind of sadness" about the loss of that, she says.

What families discuss intrigued the researchers. They found almost no subjects taboo. Subjects were age-appropriate, such as a child's retelling of eating a hot chile pepper and having to go the hospital. Within those bounds, Ochs says, "I was surprised at the level of challenge and conflict" in table talk.

She found the shared participation by children and adults "remarkable," an affirmation that American society has moved far beyond the "seen but not heard" philosophy many societies still hold about children.

Dinner time, says Ochs, is an opportunity for problem-solving together.

Ochs and Weisner speak of the "intimacy" they found in family relationships and their surprise that this was not a deterrent to intellectually complex discussion.

Perhaps, Ochs says, this is an argument for smaller school classes.

Weisner suggests that in school, children tend to be "lectured at" and encouraged to recite; at dinner, however, they learn critical thinking and how to solve problems through debate. "In my mind," Ochs says, "there's no question that dinner is related to academic performance."

Weisner is encouraged that, despite popular belief that "My God, we're losing our togetherness, losing our dinner time," the meal remains an important time for families.

It is, typically, the first time in the day when the entire family is together, and "it holds the family together in a communicative space long enough that critical information about American culture, critical strategies for presenting and resolving problems are socialized."

In short, the family at dinner time is a captive audience.

Ochs and Weisner, both 46, have an admitted veneration for family dinners. When she was growing up in Annapolis, Md., Ochs says, her family ate together every night, promptly at 6, "and we all had assigned seats."

Today, she says, "I am part of the bizarre fringe. We do eat dinner together every night. I say dinner is my only religion."

Weisner, who grew up in Oakland, recalls that, because his father traveled often and his mother, an Eastern European refugee, returned to school to get her high school diploma, dinner was sometimes eaten "on the fly."

Even today in his own home, he says, dinner hour tends to be unpredictable because his wife, Susan, teaches music in the home, and the last student doesn't always leave at the same hour. Some nights, family members sit down together at the table; some nights, they don't.

But, Weisner says, like Ochs, he feels a "reverence" for dinner as an American institution.

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