The weekly gathering is far more than a family game night. Vern Bengtson, a sociologist who ran a major study of at-home religious practices that spanned nearly four decades, called family home evening one of “the most successful [religious] programs fostering intergenerational connections and the nurturing of families.” This, at least, is the ideal. Among some seasoned practitioners, family home evening has been called “the family fight that begins and ends with prayer.” The Mormon humorist Robert Kirby has referred to it as “family home screaming.”
But back to the ideal. In 1915, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recommended that church members arrange monthly (and later, weekly) “home evenings” to strengthen family ties—a goal that many present-day Mormons consider to have been prescient, given the dramatic changes to family life that have come in the intervening century. The leaders outlined a window of time “devoted to prayer, singing hymns, songs, instrumental music, scripture reading, family topics, and specific instruction on the principles of the gospel and on the ethical problems of life, as well as the duties and obligations of children to parents, the home, the Church, society, and the nation.” As their vision suggests, family home evening wasn’t ever intended to be strictly religious. There is hymn singing and scripture reading, but there is also game playing and ethics discussing.
Just as routinely, they talked about how useful family home evening is in pushing back on this speeding-up of the everyday. One parent we interviewed said that one of his kids finds the ritual boring, and while he says his child is not always wrong, he notes “every once in a while it just clicks. … It’s a real feeling of oneness as a family.” One young teen we talked to felt similarly. She said family home evening “brings you away from all of the stuff of the world” and “gives you a chance to realize that they’re your family.” (As is standard in scholarly research, our interviewees were promised confidentiality.)
Not all children are immediately onboard. Another parent described her children’s apathy toward family home evening when they were young. But she went on to say that as adults, they recall the time fondly. “You don’t realize the impact a lot of things have when you are doing them,” she told us. Indeed, as another mother told us, “Whether or not it’s always a complete success … I think it’s important just that they know that it’s going to happen every week.”