Do you strive to have a family dinner every night? 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 is 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 to 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.
Next, the researchers looked at the correlations over time.
Similar findings were seen. Over the course of a year, only the relationship
between family dinners and teen depression showed a substantial correlation.
That is, the more family dinners teen experienced, the less likely they were to
have depressive symptoms. The effects for substance use and delinquency did not
hold up over time.
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.
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. Maybe you would prefer to take a walk in the evening
or even go for a drive after school. As long as we, as parents, are trying to
talk and stay connected with our children, these positive outcomes are more
likely to happen.
read more: Family Dinners: Magic Bullet or Myth?