LESSONS FROM NIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE

Attendance was mandatory. You had to be on time. Appearance mattered. No outside items were permitted. And no one left until all were dismissed.

I am not talking about school, church or the military.

I am talking about family dinners.

If I had to point to one thing as the glue of my childhood, it would be those meals. They were fixed and firm. We waited for everyone. We never had the TV or radio playing. And we stayed at that table – eating, talking, laughing, yelling – sometimes for hours.

Last week, a front-page New York Times article cited the benefits – and difficulties – of families eating dinners together, quoting sources and referencing studies. This would have been a good laugh at our table. Back then, we didn’t know any better.

But today we lament the fact that little more than half of American teenagers report eating regular dinners with their families. We cite studies that find those who don’t share a family meal are more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs.

Really? As a kid might say:

Uh … duh!

Good talk, plus something sweet

It’s not Mom’s meatloaf that keeps you off the dope. It’s the fact that you belong somewhere. You belong to something. You are a link in a family – for which eating together is a nightly symbol of allegiance. So when social pressure wants you to light up or take a swig, you can refuse and still know you are part of something special.

After all, most dumb things teenagers do are about being accepted or being liked. If you already have a place that makes you feel that way, you’re less inclined to take the risk.

Dinner tables are where you discuss such things. Dinner tables are where your mother or father says, “What’s bothering you?” where your siblings put the heat on for you to answer, where your grandmother offers some perspective, and where it’s all washed down with cake or chocolate.

It’s also a place where we stop moving. So much of the American day is going from place to place, carpooling, picking up, surfing the Net, disappearing into an iPod. The dinner table is a halt to all that. No one is “too busy”- unless too busy chewing. This may be the difference between a teenager feeling a parent has time to listen and feeling a parent doesn’t.

So we’re agreed it’s important, yes?

A time for action

Then why can’t more people make it happen? The Times piece cited one family whose kids had football practice from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and another whose kids have tae kwon do from 5:45 to 7:30 and piano lessons from 6 to 6:45.

Well, I’m about to commit heresy right here, but I don’t care: Mom and Dad, cancel the lessons. Take them off the team. If schools and instructors can’t find any other time to work with kids than dinnertime, it’s just not that important.

Better to have your son know your laugh, your wisdom and your funny family stories than to know how to throw a block. Better to have your daughter comfortably share her worries than to play a fugue by Bach.

Ask yourself what’s more important – your kids’ skills or their sanity? And while you’re at it, ask yourself if you haven’t scheduled your child halfway to midnight so that you can have more time for yourself or your work. If so, you have a little soul-searching to do, too.

There are some things that warrant the front page of the New York Times. Eating dinner with your family isn’t one of them. Heck, I think cavemen did it. And even cavemen may have known this:

Before you start molding the next tae kwon do champ, try molding a human being. That requires time and attention.

And there is no better place than your dinner table to do it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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