Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner
By Susan MacLaury
Growing up, my favorite TV show was a series called “Father Knows Best” about the Anderson family, who demonstrated weekly that parental interest, sensitivity, and humor could help kids resolve any issues. Decades later, the non-profit I head Shine Global, has been excited to co-produce “Onyx Family Dinner,” an 8-part series featuring parents Rita and Mirthell and their teenage children Shasha, Sinaead, Shalom and Shiloh. At the Onyx dinner table, feelings are spoken and there are no wrong feelings. And unlike the sitcoms of my childhood, these family conversations promote collective sharing of deeper concerns. Everyone feels supported in this kind of family environment.
My own upbringing had been disrupted by my father’s death when I was five. Soon after my stepfather entered, a good man with a bad drinking problem. Far from the closeness of the Onyx family dinners, ours deteriorated predictably every night. Our dinner table wasn’t a safe space to talk about our days’ experiences or to voice our opinions without the risk of personal attack. We lacked a coherent family identity and eventually my siblings and I experienced serious bouts of anxiety as we entered adolescence.
We were apparently in good company. According to the Pew Research Center, the number one problem faced by kids is anxiety, which has increased by more than 20% in the past 15 years, followed by depression, drugs and alcohol, and bullying (including cyberbullying). When we then consider the added impact of COVID-19 on families’ wellbeing – the social and financial deprivation it’s caused coupled with the fact that many adults and kids have met social isolation with increased use of personal technology – the rise in anxiety is understandable.
For more than 40 years, I worked in prevention as a social worker, therapist, and college health education professor, all of which taught me to appreciate the potential of family support for kids’ physical, emotional and social growth. During much of this time, I focused my attention on the positive influence of group support on middle and high school students. I authored a book on advisory groups and collaborated with 12 public schools in New York City and Newark, NJ to create or build their existing programs. Often called “family groups,” these sought to replicate positive family experiences by providing students the chance to explore their personal feelings and social interactions in a safe, confidential environment led by teachers, counselors, and other school staff who were trained and supervised weekly in group development.
My belief in the power of kids’ resilience and the importance of families in developing it also led me to co-found Shine Global in 2005 with my husband, Albie Hecht. In the past 16 years we’ve made 15 films and digital series about underserved children and families who model resilience and hope. These films have aired in more than 50 countries and have been used by schools, after-school programs, and families to start discussions and inspire action.
We’ve worked with many different types of families across the globe and every family has its own set of rules. Imagine if we set the expectation that eating dinner together, at least three nights a week, was a rule and no, phones are not allowed. It’s necessary for us all to have a chance to talk about our triumphs and defeats, explore the problems we face and seek advice on how best to deal with them. Over the past 30 years, many research studies have underscored the benefits of sitting down to dinner at least a few times weekly with family. Pre-teens particularly benefit from eating more nutritionally, decreasing their likelihood of developing eating disorders. They generally experience fewer behavioral problems and achieve increased literacy. These results in turn are linked to reduced rates of depression, suicide, drug abuse, and early sexual activity among teens, and achieving better grades in school overall.
Watching the Onyx Family confirms how precious a resource a loving family – however one’s family is defined – is in enabling its members to feel confident about their loveability and competence. Rita and Mirthel are strong, smart, loving parents who genuinely listen to and learn from their children. Their family embodies an essential balance between privacy and openness to positive outside influences as needed to educate and support its members. The latter is essential because any family can find itself confronting new and difficult problems and need outside help addressing them.
In these days of increasing anxiety, all of us could use the support and comfort of regular dinners with our loved ones, be they families of origin or those families we’ve created.
Dr. Susan MacLaury, PhD, LSW is the co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit media company Shine Global which gives voice to underserved children and their families by telling their stories of resilience to raise awareness, promote action, and inspire change. She executive produced the Academy Award® Winning documentary Inocente, the Emmy Award®-winning, Academy Award®-nominated War/Dance, as well as The Harvest (La Cosecha), 1 Way Up in 3D, The Eagle Huntress, Through Our Eyes: Homefront, and Liyana. She is also the producer of the documentary films The Wrong Light and Virtually Free and co-producer of Tre Maison Dasan. Susan is dually degreed in social work administration and health education and was associate professor of health education at Kean University from 1994 through 2013.
The Onyx Family Dinner is produced in association with Shine Global.
Shine Global is an award-winning non-profit media company that gives voice to children and their families by sharing their stories of resilience to raise awareness, promote action, and inspire change. We produce inspiring films and compelling content about at-risk children. Through tailored distribution and outreach, we connect with our audiences in communities, classrooms, museums, and on capitol hill as part of a powerful engagement campaign to encourage social change.
Download Companion Discussion Guide
Shine Global offers a free, downloadable family discussion tip guide as a resource for families.
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