family meal

Research over the past decade showing a significant link between the wellbeing of teenagers and family dinners makes a lot of sense. Even if no-one had studied the subject, you would tend to put your money on the family that sat around the table in a civilised way to eat and converse once a day, as opposed to the family that sat eating in front of the TV, if they sat together at all, when it came to betting which would turn out the happiest and best behaved kids.

But a couple of academics say that the science of family dinners has helped to give dinnertime “an almost magical aura” and “led to no small amount of stress and guilt among busy moms and dads.”

Now, a bit of magic seems harmless (most people would like a dash more in their lives) but we cannot have busy moms and dads feeling guilty, so there must be something wrong with the research. At least, we should shake that fairy dust off it and take a more rational look at the family dinner. That is what our academic friends have done and, lo and behold, it turns out that dining together is not the whole story.

Ann Meier of the University of Minnesota and Kelly Musick of Cornell had a good look at national data for 18,000 adolescents who were interviewed twice, a year apart, in middle or high school, and then again in young adulthood (18 to 26 years).

In our study, we analyzed 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 behaviors, 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).

You can read the actual figures here in the New York Times.

OK, so part of the effect of family dinners actually comes from other good parental input — who is surprised at that? Did anyone think that you could ignore your kids most of the time but if you got them around the table two or three times a week (if that were possible under the circumstances) all would be well with them? Most unlikely.

However, the study also found something more deflating for reputation of family meals: looking only at the direct effects of family dinners on adolescent wellbeing, these weakened over the course of a year with respect to drug and alcohol use or delinquency, and pretty well disappeared in young adulthood along with mental health benefits.

I am not sure what to make of that finding, other than that older youths are exposed to more (negative) outside influences. Some of them go away to college, after all.

The researchers don’t dismiss the possibility that family meals can matter for child wellbeing — “there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together,” they say. However, they want to reassure those busy parents that it is time spent engaging with children learning about their day-to-day lives that counts, and this can happen in other ways.

Driving in the car with them may be one. But there are things that can happen around the table that cannot happen in the car. Is there any real replacement for that family time, day by day?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet