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Family Day — It’s about the ‘we’ in our family

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When I told my four children that today is declared Family Day in California, they thought it meant a day off from school. Not so, I told them. Family Day is about the "we" in our family.

What do I mean by that? Studies show that when we families eat together three or more times a week, teens are half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana, one-third less likely to try alcohol — and it lowers risk for substance abuse by 70 percent.

Those figures are startling and when Joe Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, told me about these statistics, I immediately thought we must get this information out to every family in California.

So today we are gathering with families of Tenderloin Community School in San Francisco to celebrate Family Day. Our event is called "we eat, we play, we prepare and we serve." It’s goal is to communicate information that teaches family members how to connect to one another.

We eat — When you eat together as a family, you connect as a family. Make family meals healthy. Serve more fruits and vegetables, be aware of portion size and try new recipes.

We play — Families that play together, grow together. There are many things families can do to stay active. Take a walk or go for a bike ride. Arnold and I, along with our kids, just biked in the Best Buddies Ride for people with intellectual disabilities. We try to make the activities we do together be teachable moments for our family.

We prepare — Families need to be ready and prepared for disasters, especially since we live in a state prone to earthquakes, fires and floods. Talk to your kids about what to do in a disaster and involve them in the process of preparing a family plan so they are empowered and not fearful. Visit www.firstlady.ca.gov to find out how to be prepared as a family.

We serve — Serve your community as a family by volunteering to plant a school garden or clean up a park. There are nearly 30,000 volunteer opportunities available in our state through www.californiavolunteers.org.

Now, I realize it’s hard for families to find the time to get together with many families working two to three jobs just to make a living. But these statistics from CASA’s research show us that if we make the time to sit down with our children, the rewards are invaluable.

I grew up in a household when dinner time was mandated family time. My parents taught me and my four brothers to come to the table with something to share. We were taught to have an opinion, and I learned so much not only about my brothers and my family but about the world around us by eating at the dinner table. And when I sit down with my kids for dinner, I learn so much about their world, what’s going on in school, their friends, their opinions, ideas, strengths and the challenges they face.

When I think of California, I like to believe that WE are one big family. My hope for the California family is that we will be able to come together not just on this day but as often as we possibly can. These statistics should really make us all pause and reflect on the fact that a simple act of sharing a meal together may be the greatest gift we can give our children.

And one more thing before you go. Remember the words of the great author Isabel Allende: "A family that eats, shares stories, celebrates and grieves together, stays together."

Maria Shriver is California’s first lady, Today, Shriver will be visiting San Francisco’s Tenderloin Community School to celebrate Family Day in California.