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Bring back family mealtime

3rd August 2006

03082006_Mealtime1.jpgLast weekend a friend of ours was describing how she had been helping her despairing daughter to get her small child to eat proper food. 

The errant granddaughter refused to eat at mealtimes, and instead chose to snack on biscuits, chocolates and other such items throughout the day. 

Her mother seemed unable to prevent this grazing no matter how much she entreated or cajoled the child.  Our friend had a much more straightforward approach. She emptied the cupboard of biscuits and snacks and prepared for a day of merry hell.  Sure enough, granddaughter wailed, thrashed and screamed and did not eat all day, though put at the table at mealtimes to eat with the adults.  By day three, she was taking her own place at table and eating what was placed before her. 

I was reminded of this tale as I read the latest warnings about increasing levels of mental illness amongst children.  Our friend’s granddaughter was clearly to my mind at the start of a process that could only lead to dietary problems and failure to socialise properly, possibly ultimately leading to disorientation and mental disorder.  The loss of the place of food at the heart of family and social life has long been mourned by those of us who enjoy mealtimes and wholesome food.  However, we have in my view probably been understating the symbolic as well as actual significance of this cultural phenomenon as an indicator of the state of our family life and the mental health of our children.

Mealtimes provide unrivalled opportunities to do three things.  First, mealtimes allow us to show the child the importance of apparently trivial rules of behaviour, such as how to share, wait your turn, eat quietly and without offending others.  Without these rules feeding becomes a free-for-all, with courtesy and consideration being replaced by rudeness, selfishness and brutishness.  Second, mealtimes introduce children to civilised conversation and interaction, as it is the best opportunity for everyone in the family or group to spend time together distracted only by the delight on the plate and in the glass.  Thirdly of course mealtimes also allow the child to be introduced to all the good food and drink we are blessed with, and to learn about the source, richness and wonder of the increasingly varied comestibles we have available.  It is at the table that children first enter into the adult world which is bounded by conventions that allow civilisation the space to exist.

The absence of boundaries is however a feature of modern life, as is the absence of formal dining in families.  It was reported in the press this week that the National Curriculum Council no longer wants schools to deal with the difference or boundary between right and wrong, but instead to emphasise the importance of human rights. 

Now, working in mental health services as I have for twenty years, I understand the importance of rights and the impact of services that fail to respect these rights.  During the debates about the reform of the 1959 Mental Health Act, Larry Gostin, Mind’s then legal director, set out the rights based approach to mental health legislation that the organisation supported with its four components to protect vulnerable people:

  • Procedural rights – there should always be a due process that gives a fair hearing to the patient as well as the clinicians.
  • Rights to a service – if you have a need then an appropriate service should be made available.
  • A right to beneficence – services should not harm the patient.
  • A right to self-determination – and to be supported in learning from mistakes that you make.

These rights did not extend to a right to commit criminal damage, a right to do just as I please all the time and stuff the rest, a right to opt out of civil society and any obligations I have to the rest of the community.

Sadly, today these are just the rights that people claim, on the back of the excellent work we did in the 80’s and 90’s to bring about a society where people were treated fairly and decently.  A positive protective framework has been turned into a formless, amorphous space without definition or boundaries. 

People now roam around in their world with little notion of constraints on their public or private behaviour and limited self-respect to enforce any vestigial code of conduct they may have picked up along their life journey.  We live with unprecedented levels of anti-social behaviour, with equally unprecedented levels of personal dissatisfaction, unhappiness and mental illness.  The reason for this is that the positive rights we were claiming for people in the late part of the last century have now been interpreted as an absence of obligations to anyone or anything else, an absence of boundaries on behaviour.

When I ask the yob who lives next door to me to turn down the music he is blasting from his bedroom into my back garden, he just laughs.  So, I have to ask the local police community support officer to come and tell him instead.  The yob still cannot understand that he does not have the right to play his music to me if I don’t want to hear it!  When we ask the mental patient not to destroy his bedroom in the hospital he tells us that it is his right and there is nothing we can do to stop him, even though he is detained against his will and we have powers to restrain him from destroying property or harming himself or others. 

It is time we started challenging this absence of boundaries.  It is time that people with high standards of behaviour started to assert these standards and take back their right to live without interference from others.  In other words, it is about time that parents and families started to socialise their children to make them into decent and sane citizens, and that includes making their children sit down at the table to eat at mealtimes.

 

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