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Is the family dinner overrated?
Dozens of studies in the past decade have found that teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families are healthier, happier, do better in school and engage in fewer risky behaviours than teenagers who don't regularly eat family dinners. These findings have helped give dinnertime an almost magical aura and have led to no small amount of stress and guilt among busy moms and dads.
But does eating together really make for better-adjusted children? Or is it just that families that can pull off a regular dinner also tend to have other things (perhaps more money, or more time) that themselves improve child well-being ?
Our research, published last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marriage and Family, shows that the benefits of family dinners aren't as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest.
In our study, we analysed how the frequency of family dinners was associated with three indicators of a young person's well-being : depressive symptoms;drug and alcohol use;and delinquency (a tally of many behaviours, from petty shoplifting to physical assault).
First, we looked at the associations between family dinners and these measures of well -being at just a single point in time, in adolescence. Without controlling for any other factors, the associations between family dinners and well-being were quite strong and in line with past research. But the associations were far less striking after we accounted, with the help of the data, for the ways in which families who did and didn't eat together tended to differ: for instance, in the quality of family relationships, in activities with a parent (a tally of things like moviegoing and helping with schoolwork), in parental monitoring (things like curfews and approving clothing) and in family resources (things like income and whether both parents were in the household).
To give an example: Without controlling for such factors, we found that 73 per cent of adolescents who seldom ate with their families (twice per week) reported drug and alcohol use, compared with 55 percent of those who ate with their families regularly (seven days a week). But controlling for these factors, the gap was cut in half, from 18 percentage points to 9.
Next, as a more stringent test of causality, we looked at adolescents over the course of a year and examined how changes in the frequency of family dinners related to changes in well-being. If adolescents were eating family dinners more often a year later, were they better off? We found that following teenagers over a year provided even weaker evidence for the causal effects of family dinners on adolescent well-being - only the effect of family dinners on teen depressive symptoms held up. There was no effect on drug and alcohol use or delinquency.
Finally, we looked at whether family dinners in the teenage years had effects that persisted into young adulthood. Again, evidence for benefits was thin. We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency. (Of course, it may be that family dinners have a stronger or more lasting effect on behaviour)
What, then, should you think about dinnertime ? Though we are more cautious than other researchers about the unique benefits of family dinners, we don't dismiss the possibility that they can matter for child well-being. Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence : there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together. (A study by Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Use asked teens when, apart from dinner, they talked to parents about their lives: a vast majority said it was when driving in the car. )
But our findings suggest that the effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their dayto-day lives. So if you aren't able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don't beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your children.
Ann Meier is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Kelly Musick is an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University
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