“Does eating together really make for better-adjusted kids? 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?”
Those are the questions Ann Meier and Kelly Musick asked and recently answered in the New York Times article “Is the Family Dinner Overrated?” Meier and Musick conducted a study of 18,000 adolescents and their parents regarding how often they ate dinner a week and the well-being of the adolescent. Well-being was measured by three things: depressive symptoms; drug and alcohol use; and delinquency.
Importance of Family Dinners: The Study
When the researchers only controlled for the relationship between eating together and adolescents’ well-being, the results were positive and reflected the conclusion made by other research that having family dinner leads to happier kids. However, when they factored in other variables, the association was less clear. In the end, they found “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 day-to-day lives.” They tell parents to not worry about not making it to family dinners as long as they can make up for this together time at another point in the day, like driving in the car.
In the article, the researchers brush off the fact that eating together is only made effective if the parents use it to its full potential. In their opening question they reveal that they believe family dinner will have a positive effect on an adolescent’s well-being because either a) eating together makes people happier or b) families who have dinner together also have other factors on their side, like more money and time. I think both hypotheses are wrong.
Importance of Family Dinners: My Thoughts
First, dinner time, like any time, can only positively effect a child’s well-being if it is used effectively. This means the dinner table should be the stage for healthy debates, powerful questions, and most importantly, listening. If the time is spent with the T.V. off and with minds engaged, kids can learn vocabulary, relieve stress, and gain perspective over family dinner. Likewise, the importance of family dinners is minimized if the only objective is “chowing down.” Driving in the car to school can be a place to have a conversation, but eating together ensures that siblings, mom and/or dad, and other family members will also be present for the conversation.
Secondly, the researchers suggest that if option a is wrong, then it must mean option b is right — that money and time are more important factors than actually eating dinner. Yes, just eating dinner at the same table will not bring a family closer together. But there are single mothers at poverty level who work full-time and still have meaningful family dinners with their children.
The debate over the importance of family dinners should not be about food; it should be about connection. Executives go to lunch meetings; singles go on dinner dates; friends go out for drinks; families eat together. Eating is a social event. Parents should not be encouraged to continue not eating with their children. Instead, parents should be encouraged to make dinner a priority where they can show their kids through conversation that their opinions, their day, and their dreams matter.
“Is the Family Dinner Overrated?” by Ann Meier and Kelly Musick. 29 June 2012. The New York Times. Accessed on 7 July 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/opinion/sunday/is-the-family-dinner-overrated.html