Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Family Dinners: Magic Bullet or Myth?

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. 
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