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Whoa, Momma!

Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Tracey Henry and Suzannah DiMarzio

Is the family dinner overrated?

grilledveggies.jpgI just love contrarians like these researchers  featured in the New York Times who say "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."

Sounds like blasphemy! We've been hard-wired for guilt over the family dinner after 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 behaviors 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.

Ann Meier, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Kelly Musick, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, took a closer look at all these studies and came up with a different conclusion.

"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?," they write. "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."

They found that the difference between dinner-eaters and non were far less striking after they accounted for the quality of family relationships, activities with a parent (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).

"Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence." they write. "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 day-to-day lives."

So busy parents who are wolfing a sandwich on the way out the door to practice, stop beating yourselves up. There are other ways to connect, they find, just make sure that you do make time to connect.

--Sharon Kennedy Wynne

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[Last modified: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 10:14am]


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