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Do Family Dinners Improve Child Behavior?

Research shows that kids who regularly have dinner with their families are less inclined to engage in risky behaviors.  Or maybe not.

New research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health indicates that the more frequently families have dinner together, the better kids do emotionally.  McGill University of Montreal researchers sampled over 26,000 Canadian children ages 11-15.  The researchers found that frequent family dinners had a positive correlation with fewer behavioral problems, more helpful behaviors, and higher life satisfaction among the children.  “The effect doesn’t plateau after three or four dinners a week, “ said Frank Elgar, an associated professor of psychiatry at McGill.  “One is better than none, and all up the scale.  The more dinners a week, the better.”  Still, the researchers admit, they don’t know if family dinners contribute to good mental health or if kids who are having problems tend to avoid eating with the family. 

Another study conducted last year published in the Journal of Child Development, however, found no correlation between dinner and positive outcomes for children.  The study was based on information gleaned from over 21,000 children in grades K-8 in the United States.  But, said Daniel Miller, the author of Modern-Family-Thanksgiving-Rockwellthe study, eating together as a family might just be one of the activities that families engage in that help kids feel grounded.  Other research has found that there is a connection between family activities such as dinner and lower risks of smoking and binge drinking.  But again, researchers are unclear whether the effects are causal.

In this age of technology, I find it hard to believe when I watch families out to dinner that the experience is necessarily having a positive effect.  The kids are looking down at their hand-helds or have earbuds in their ears.  Parents frequently check their smart phones.  Nobody talks to anybody else.  Nobody shares food and some kids only order soda.

I also find it hard to believe that simply engaging in family activities produces a positive effect.  Living near Busch Gardens and Water Country, I’ve seen numerous family outings from hell, with parents shrieking at their kids and kids talking back or ignoring them (earbuds in, iPhone out).  As one mother said to her child last summer, “Quit hanging on me!  It’s hot, I’m sticky, and I don’t want you touching me.”  Out-of-towners are spending a bundle to visit here in historic Williamsburg, and they often act like it’s a sentence.

So I have to think it’s not dinner or the activity in and of itself, but the attitude that adults bring to the table (so to speak).  Put the tech away.  Talk about what you did that day.  No criticisms.  If a kid knocks over his or her drink, so what?  Get a paper towel and refill the glass.  If it’s a family outing, plan it so it’s not a 12-hour day with kids whining and adults exasperated.  It’s not the dinner together per se; it’s spending time together as a family, communicating with one another, and acting as if you care about one another.





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