September 27 was CASA Family Dinner Day in the United States and a report from the research centre confirms the important role of family dinners in keeping teenagers connected to their parents and free of substance abuse.

CASA stands for the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. This is its tenth Family Day and its sixth report highlighting the benefits of family dinners for children growing up — in this case, 12- to 17-year-olds. CASA founder and chairman, Joseph A Califano Jr, says:

This year’s study demonstrates that the magic that happens at family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the conversations around it. Three in four teens report that they talk to their parents about what’s going on in their lives during dinner; and eight in 10 parents agree that by having family dinner they learn more about what’s going on in their teens’ lives. These conversations are key: Teens who say that they talk to their parents about what’s going in on their lives over dinner are less likely to smoke, drink and use marijuana than teens who don’t have such talks with their parents.

Talking around the table strengthens family ties. Compared to teens with strong family ties, those with weak ties are:

* Four times likelier to have tried tobacco

* Four times likelier to have tried marijuana

* Almost three times likelier to have tried alcohol.

Teens who have frequent family dinners (5 to 7 per week) are much more likely to report that they have an excellent relationship with their mother and their father (step-parents are included) and that their parents are very good at listening to them.

Young people themselves understand the importance of eating dinner with their parents (almost three-quarters) and, of those who do so less than five nights a week, 60 per cent would like to have family dinners more often.

So what would stop them? Both teens and parents cite being “too busy” or “different activities” as the leading reason, and overlapping with that, “work”, although teens are twice as likely to be at work during mealtime (38 per cent compared with 19 per cent of parents).

The give and take around meals has a practical aspect. Up to two-thirds of teens questioned said they helped with the dinner: 39 per cent with meal preparation; 49 per cent with setting the table; 66 per cent with cleaning up after. The spin-off in their favour was that 57 per cent had input into the decision about what to eat.

Besides protecting teenagers from exposure to drugs and alcohol, dining with their parents correlates with higher academic grades and with regular religious service attendance.

The study does not say how religious attendance has its positive effect, but teenagers may hear explicit messages against substance abuse from pastors and youth leaders; more importantly they are likely sharing another activity with their parents, and one which fosters respect for parents and their values.

Regular religious service attendance is associated with lower rates of smoking, drinking and drug use.

Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to attend religious services weekly (four or more times a month) compared to teens who have infrequent family dinners.

Compared to teens who attend religious services at least four times a month, those who never attend services are twice as likely to have tried cigarettes, nearly twice as likely to have tried alcohol, and two and a half times likelier to have tried marijuana.

CASA surveys show that about 60 per cent of teenagers have frequent family dinners, and this figure has been constant over the past decade.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet