Research Reveals the Myth of Family Dinner Time as Cure-all

benefits-of-family-dinnersThe clock is approaching 6:00 pm and your household is frazzled. Half the kids are still at soccer practice. You have to pick them up in 20 minutes. The younger kids are in “witching hour” mode and running around crazy and begging for snacks. You haven’t yet considered what will be on the menu for dinner.

Does this sound like your house? Many times family dinner time can easily turn into stressful time. Yet, we hear all the time that families who eat dinner together reap great benefits for themselves and their children.

Most of us have heard all the research about how important family dinners are to kids’ long-term outcomes. Just a few years ago, journalist and filmmaker Miriam Weinstein wrote a book entitled, The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier, in which she outlines the research that supports the role that family dinners play in kids’ lives.

Reading this research, it really sounds like family dinners are the magic bullet of family life. Family dinners have been associated with all sorts of positive outcomes for kids, such as less teenage delinquency and drug use, lower rates of obesity, greater emotional stability, and even better preparedness for reading. It sounds a little too good to be true. Something as simple as family dinners could make all these great outcomes appear in your family?

Well, it turns out that the “magic bullet” of the family dinner may be a little too good to be true. New research is delving deeper into the role that family dinners play in the lives of children. This research is not only compelling because of the insight it offers into family life, but it also illustrates a perfect example of the difference between correlation and causation in social science research.

In this new research, scientists used a huge national survey of adolescents. They consider the relationship between family dinners and three main outcomes:

  • Teen depression,
  • Teen alcohol and drug use, and
  • Teen delinquency

At first, the study seemed to replicate previous work, with there being a strong correlation between family dinners and less teen delinquency. Then, however, researchers went one step further.

They controlled statistically for other factors that might explain these differences in families such as:

  • How well parents monitor their children,
  • How many activities parents do with their children, and
  • Family resources

Not surprisingly, when these factors are included in the mix, the correlation between family dinners and teen outcomes drops dramatically. In other words, these other factors, not family dinner itself, can explain much of the effects we see. Family dinner time is “masking” these other factors.

So it turns out that family dinners are not the “magic bullet” that they were once considered to be. As is often the case in social science, the strong correlation between family dinners and teen outcomes did not mean that family dinners were the sole cause of this relationship. As this new research shows, the family dinner is really just a proxy for other positive things parents do with their children such as talking and engaging with them on a daily basis. The key component that seems to be influencing kids is this: connection and communication with parents.

Does this mean that you should give up on family dinners? Of course not!

Dinner time is still a great opportunity to connect with you kids, but it’s not the only way. In his popular book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, Bruce Feiler discusses different ways in which families can connect throughout the day, not just a dinner.

Here are just a few ideas:

  • If after school activities make dinner time difficult, have an early “dinner” at 4:00 for all who can join. Then later at night, have a family dessert for everyone.
  • Family time does not always have to center around a meal—how about a walk when everyone gets home from school and work.
  • Family storytelling and asking kids questions is key. Every family has stories from grandparents or funny tales from relatives.
  • Start a “themed” conversation that happens most times the family is together. Ours is sharing “joys and challenges” of the day or week. Each person shares something that was a “joy” and “challenge” for that day. It is amazing all the good conversation this can start.

Research is clearly showing that “family dinner” is really just a proxy for family connection. Kids that feel safe, connected, and valued by their family are less likely to participate in dangerous activities like drug use, extreme risk-taking or delinquent acts. Furthermore, these kids tend to be happier and are less likely to be depressed.

Take the pressure and stress out of family dinner. Just aim to find a few minutes every day to connect with your family, in any way you can.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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