The decline of the family dinner suggests the growing disconnectedness of parents and children, author William Doherty says.
"The natural drift of family life . . . is toward slowly diminishing connection, meaning and community," he writes in The Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in our Modern World.
According to Dr. Doherty, an Intentional Family is one whose members create a working plan to stay connected. The plan is centred on rituals such as family meals, holiday celebrations and special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
"At heart, the Intentional Family is a ritualizing family," writes Dr. Doherty, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "In the face of the obstacles and distractions of modern life, Intentional Families find a way to use meals to feed their souls along with their bodies."
He argues that families are increasingly focusing their energies outside themselves -- on sports and jobs -- and that the "consumer culture" has invaded the family, putting a premium on the right to individual choice.
Parents have lost too much confidence in themselves to insist that the importance of rituals may outweigh this right to choice, he says.
"Parents see themselves as service providers to children. From that point of view, all that matters is they get food in their bellies, particularly if the children object in some way -- if they'd rather watch TV or eat a burrito, or talk on the phone."
And technology has had unintended effects: For instance, the microwave oven allows everyone to prepare their own separate meals. "We now have six-year-olds who know how to take a burrito out of the freezer, press some buttons and have their meal," Dr. Doherty says.
People assume that "if you love each other, the family will take care of itself" -- but that is not the case. "Some people lose a focus on what do we need to do as a family to maintain our ties with each other.
"I think it's a real problem. Increasingly, with our very busy families, dinner is likely to be the only opportunity for everyone to be together having a conversation."
The importance of family rituals has grown as religion and community have faded, author John Gillis says.
Hence the mythologizing of the family dinner, which from its beginnings as a middle-class notion last century had a quasi-religious aura (a separate room, dark heavy wood for solidity and continuity, a round or rectangular table so families could turn in on themselves, candles or paraffin lamps instead of gas lights), says Prof. Gillis, a historian of the family at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"We not only live with families, but depend on them to do the symbolic work that was once assigned to religious and communal institutions: representing ourselves to ourselves as we would like to think we are," he writes in his book A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values.
In fact, though, there was really only a brief period in history when the shared dinner was a regular feature of family life, Prof. Gillis says.
From about 1950 to 1970, wages were high enough and work hours short enough that one income sufficed and fathers could get home before the children were climbing the walls.
As Prof. Gillis recalls that period from his own childhood in Buffalo, the family dinners were not always especially meaningful.
His family ate exactly at 5:15 at the kitchen dinette, after his father listened to the news on the radio. His mother cooked casseroles or a meat loaf and baked bread.
"The meal was over in 20 minutes. It was three courses: salad, main course and dessert. I might tell my parents what I did in school that day. Then I'd go off and do my homework.
"I don't remember it as a great highlight of the day. It was always the same food, always the same people, always the same conversations."