Power of dinner table talk

By Bae Eun-joo

I felt sad to hear a recent report that an increasing number of elementary school students are dining alone. The news said that the majority of the students attributed the reason for eating alone to their busy study schedule.

The respondents said that they have to attend several “hagwon,” or private institutes, after regular school hours. To meet their tightly packed hagwon schedules, those elementary school students often substitute their meals with fast food, such as hamburgers, ramen, kimbab or other frozen meals at convenient stores.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs reported last month that elementary school children eat alone at least two times a week. This is significantly higher than for adults as adults reportedly dine alone 6.5 times a month on average.

Over 80.7 percent of elementary school students, 69.4 percent of middle school students and 50.2 percent of high school students receive private education, according to Statistics Korea. An average elementary school student spends 5 hours and 23 minutes on study every day whereas a college student spends 4 hours and 10 minutes on daily studies.

The Seoul City Office of Education proposed an amendment last month to ban hagwon from operating on Sundays. It said the revision will include limiting hagwon operating hours to 7:00 p.m. for elementary school students, 9:00 p.m. for middle school students and 10:00 p.m. for high school students on weekdays and Saturdays.

The education office also said that it will prohibit elementary schools from giving homework to lower grade students starting this year. This move is part of the office’s plan to strengthen public education and to overhaul private education which is resulting in growing financial strain on households.

It said that this policy would reinforce the public education system and lessen individual student’s dependency on private education. Also, school assignments to the entire class will be banned but instead will be handed out to selected students upon individual teachers’ discretion. Teachers will not be allowed to give penalty points or other disadvantages against students who have not completed their homework.

A survey by Good Teachers, a nonprofit civic group, found that seven out of ten parents support this proposal. If the “Sunday ban” on hagwon is adopted, an overwhelming 74 percent of parents say they would let their children study at home or rest on Sundays whereas only 17 percent responded they would opt for private tutoring.

Some 41 percent of high school students who attend hagwon on Sundays feel fatigued throughout the day at school, the survey said.

Koreans have long respected the importance and the value of dinner table talk in the past. It is a pity that family dinners are becoming a rare occasion nowadays on the excuse that children have to study.

Family dinner conversations are widely known as the best approach to improve children’s vocabulary and build their resilience to multiple points of view.

A research conducted by Emory University found that dinner table conversations tend to make children bring up topics that are more interesting and valid to them. Even just a few minutes of talking to each family member about various ideas can help children engage in complex thinking and build tolerance for opinions different from their own.

The research also shows that children who learn more about their families have higher self-esteem and are more responsible for their own behavior.

Last year, the North Gyeongsang Provincial government designated the last Saturday of every month “Grandma, Grandpa Day,” encouraging families to dine together and teach children family values.

This move is considered the government’s first step in solving many social issues, such as violence, crime, juvenile delinquency and suicide, in the long run.

In this turbulent society, where mealtime is conceived of as a time squeezed between rushing to and from activities, creating an enjoyable family dinner could sound like a difficult task.

But I am sure that having your children at your family dinner table will teach them far more than anything they could ever learn from attending any hagwon.

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