Commentary: Why 'Eat With Your Family Day' should be every day
Every year, there is a special day set aside for families to take the time to eat with their families. June Yong suggests that the practice of dining as a family should be marked as sacred time every day.
SINGAPORE: We live in an increasingly time-scarce world. As a working parent of two primary school children and a teen, I am starting to feel the brunt of this year, as everyone’s schedules sometimes have us running in all directions.
Even at the dining table – the spot where we meet and congregate before the day officially begins and when the day’s work ends – it is a daily tussle to pull everyone away from devices, books and homework, and to be fully present. Especially for myself, as a working mother.
Just last week, I took the children out on a “date” to a nearby café. I made everyone leave their devices and books behind and bring only themselves.
We had a nice time chatting about the latest things they were into, about friends in school and even about the war in Ukraine and how to make sense of it.
Although we do have such connecting moments at home, it struck me how sometimes a change in scenery can help attune our senses to new nuances.
I found myself being able to switch mode from the disciplinarian mum always lecturing the kids on their behaviour, to being curious and conversational.
Against the ever-increasing allure of the metaverse, it is perhaps not difficult to see why Eat With Your Family Day (EWYFD) was launched in 2003 by the Centre for Fathering (CFF).
Now held four times a year, on the last Friday of each school term, EWYFD seeks to encourage organisations to allow employees to leave work early at 5 pm to enjoy a meal at home with their families.
For busy parents, it is an important reminder – to stop work and focus on their children – even if it is for 30 minutes a day.
At the same time, the irony is not lost on me: Have we forgotten something as simple as sitting down to have a family meal together, that we need a reminder to do this often?
Is it really so hard to carve out an hour of meaningful connection every day?
BEATING BACK WORKISM
Derek Thompson, in The Atlantic, defines workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centrepiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
According to data published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2019, three ASEAN countries are in the top 10 when it comes to the longest average workweek, with Myanmar clocking 48 hours, Brunei, 47 and Malaysia, 46.
Thailand and Singapore are in the top 20, with an average of 43 hours spent at work each week.
A recent study by The Straits Times showed that one in two Singaporean employees has logged extra working hours since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reasons cited include difficulties drawing boundaries with work-from-home arrangements, increased administrative tasks and covering for colleagues who have quit.
Other surveys seem to echo the findings. One conducted in 2021 by Focus on the Family Singapore found that 70 per cent of parents with children aged five to eight say that they are too busy to enjoy quality time with the kids.
So busy are we that less than half of those surveyed experienced positive emotions when their child desired their attention, while a quarter are even annoyed or stressed by it.
We all know that work is necessary, and for some, even meaningful. But have we allowed a good thing to spiral out of control and become an unhealthy obsession?
Perhaps some of us have also unwittingly subscribed to the cult of busyness, allowing it to feed into our sense of self-worth. One article in The Conversation even describes it as an addiction, when taken to extremes.
Such an entrenched cultural definition of success – the busier you are, the more successful you must be – should be debunked, in my view.
Even Bill Gates took time off his multiple responsibilities to read and recharge in a secret cabin in the woods twice yearly.
While most of us may not have the luxury (nor a cabin) to escape to, over extended periods, surely we should be able to carve out 30 minutes a day to just relax and unwind with our loved ones.
Schools and stress: A tangled web involving parents, academic pressure and so much more. Listen to CNA's Heart of the Matter:
IT’S MORE THAN TIME
We’ve all heard the saying that children spell love as T-I-M-E. But for many of us, love is also spelt F-O-O-D.
It may be a chore to assemble to eat each day, but dinnertime offers a small window where conversation can take place outside of the task-oriented lives that adults and children lead.
Research supports family dinners and some indicate that eating together at least four times a week has positive effects on child development: Lower risk of obesity, substance abuse, increased self-esteem and even literacy skills.
The 30 minutes where a parent shuts his laptop and sits with his child talking about the good or bad parts of their day sends a powerful signal to the young person. The parent is effectively saying, “You are important to me, and my work can wait.”
And for parents, such moments of connection help us to switch mental gears to see our children as curious and growing individuals and to enjoy them without worrying about what needs to be done next. For children, it is a chance they get to receive some guidance on how to make sense of things they see or experience in the world.
The trick, according to parenting experts, is to avoid turning the conversation into a lecture. Being an active listener, embracing what children say without judgement and sharing our own challenges and highlights are important levers that we can use.
There are also overflow effects, as they learn they can talk to their siblings (not just fight), they learn how to listen and mostly, enjoy silly stories by laughing together. We can’t see the connection now, but all these lay the foundation for how they come to see the value of family.
And perhaps it may also mean that as adults, as they disappear into a world of busyness, they will make time for their family too.
The impromptu dinner date that I had with my children was a memorable punctuation mark for me amidst the daily grind. The switch in the atmosphere prepared my brain and heart for a different experience – where it’s not just about getting the food down and the meal done, but connecting while consuming.
But I am painfully aware that this cannot be a once-a-quarter occurrence.
June Yong is the Lead of Insights at Focus on the Family Singapore and the owner of MamaWearPapaShirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.