As COVID-19 forces them to slow down, families find joy in spending more time together

Alexandra Hudson, Opinion contributor
·5 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 1.1 million people worldwide, including more than 223,000 in the United States. It's wrecked the American economy and led to spikes in suicides and drug overdoses. Its devastation shouldn't be minimized.

Yet, there also have been positive consequences, including, for many families, more time for meals together, conversations, games, movie nights and bike rides. The abrupt slow down in modern life has given people a chance to deepen relationships and create new rituals together.

“We’ve loved the time together,” said Gail Bennett, who lives with her husband and 16-year-old son in New York’s Greenwich Village. “Before, life pulled us in 1 million different directions. But since the pandemic, we’ve been spending much more time together at meals, especially at breakfast and dinner.”

Research in recent years has correlated family meals with a bevy of positive outcomes for children: better grades, lower rates of teen pregnancy, higher self-esteem, greater likelihood of college attendance and lower rates of substance abuse.

The most comprehensive study, published in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in January, found that regular family meals are associated with healthier diets and improved family relationships.

“We don’t make time for things like family meals," Bennett said. "Without local and national mandates, we just otherwise wouldn’t."

Research in recent years has correlated family meals with many positive outcomes for children
Research in recent years has correlated family meals with many positive outcomes for children

In recent years, family dinners have been more common for wealthier families, who are more likely to have the time and money needed to prepare a meal together. But recent survey data from the FMI Foundation indicates that the pandemic-induced lockdown may have reduced this difference: people of all economic levels seem to be eating more meals together.

Out of 1,000 people surveyed in August, 94% said they’re cooking meals at home and eating with their family the same amount or more than before the COVID-19 outbreak. Nearly 80% reported family meals as the high point of their day.

Relationships grow stronger

Michael and Joanna Bopp, parents of four teenagers in the Washington, D.C., area, said their relationships with their children has never been stronger.

“He’s my buddy now!” Joanna Bopp, a teacher in Virginia, said of her son Andrew, 19. “It’s so rare to have teenagers just be home. It’s been a special time for us."

“This age is so formative for them,” Bopp said. “The lockdown gave me a front row seat to their lives. They’ve been stuck at home, unable to see their friends, and yet still yearning for community. When they can’t have their friends, they turn to us. We’re their second choice — but I’ll take it!”

The COVID-19 shutdown has not been without its struggles for families forced into close, constant contact.

“Nobody is meant to be in a house with four teenagers for seven months,” Kate Swanson, from Fishers, Ind., said, laughing.

More time for conversations

While there have been tense moments as she and her husband adjusted to life in lockdown with their children, Swanson also noted the increased regularity of in-depth conversations.

“Things around us are changing so rapidly," Swanson said. "We love that we’ve been able to unpack the unprecedented events about racial injustice, the problems of our health care system, and so much else, with our kids as these events are happening.”

Although more than 60% of American workers have able to work from home at least part of the time during the pandemic, others haven't been so fortunate. For Hudson Flynn, a 16-year-old who lives with his parents in Greenwich Village, the lockdown upended his family's livelihood. His parents work in theater — his mother is an actress, his father a producer — and COVID-19 led to canceled work projects.

“We are normally such a transient family," Flynn said. "It took some time for us to adjust to all of us being home at once, living in such close quarters."

But they've made the most of it. They began new family rituals, such as daily walks to the hospital around the corner from their house, where they and their neighbors would gather each day at 6 p.m. to applaud the medical workers on the front lines of the crisis.

They used a film projector — their “pandemic purchase” — to optimize family movie nights by creating a theater experience in their cozy confines. They plan to keep these family rituals — family walks and movie nights — even when the pandemic is a memory.

It is too soon to say what long-term impact the pandemic will have on families — or on society at large, for that matter. But Gail Bennett’s son, Galen, is hopeful about the future.

“I think this will make us all more connected and empathetic,” he said.

Galen’s optimism is echoed in recent survey data commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, which found that nearly two thirds of millennials and Gen Zers still thought the American Dream was possible — despite growing up in the shadows of 9/11’s terrorist attacks, the financial crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused horrific suffering. But that doesn't mean families haven't found positive ways to adapt amid the pain this year has inflicted.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,” William Shakespeare wrote. A meal together, a family bike ride, an unhurried conversation. Few things in life are sweeter in a dark and uncertain time.

Alexandra Hudson is an Indianapolis-based writer, a 2019 Novak Fellow and a Young Voices contributor. She is writing a book on civility and civic renewal for St. Martin's Press. Follow her on Twitter: @LexiOHudson

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amid COVID-19 slow down, families find time to deepen relationships