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Family Dinners: More than Food at Stake

It is not the food served that makes family dinners important. It’s the chance to interact, share humor and sadness, achieve recognition for accomplishments, and find unconditional support when efforts fail.

How many times a week does your family eat dinner together?

According to the latest study from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University the answer to this question may be directly related to the risk of your teen’s drinking, smoking or using other drugs.

More specifically, compared to teens having frequent family dinners (five to seven per week) those having infrequent family dinners (fewer than three such meals) are:

  • More than two times as likely to use alcohol
  • More than four times as likely to use tobacco
  • Two and a half times as likely to use marijuana
  • Nearly four times as likely to anticipate trying drugs at some point in the future

Approximately four of every 10 teens interviewed reported having infrequent family meals. Given the current economy and necessity for parents to work long hours, we can only expect this figure to increase.

The good news is that it is not the food served that makes family dinners important. It’s the chance to interact, share humor and sadness, achieve recognition for accomplishments, and find unconditional support when efforts fail.

The CASA survey asked teens to identify what they liked best about family dinners. The young people chose (in order):

  • “Sharing, talking, and interacting with family members.”
  • “Sitting down or being together.”
  • “Laughing and telling jokes.”

The experience of having a predictable home base becomes increasingly valuable to teens as they move into the adult world and seek their place in it. It is especially important during the “bravado” stage of adolescence, when our kids become obnoxiously uncommunicative and dismiss family values as outdated.

Fortunately, for those unable to gather around the dining table five or more times a week, the same benefits also can be obtained through other types of regular family gatherings.

Additional Perks of Regular Family Gatherings

The CASA study indicates that teens having frequent family dinners are significantly more likely to report positive family relationships than the comparison group. They are: 

  • More than twice as likely to describe having an excellent relationship with Father
  • Nearly twice as likely to state they have an excellent relationship with sibling(s)
  • One and a half times more likely to report an excellent relationship with Mother

This group also tends to spend more time, in general, with family than their peers. This is important because spending increased time with parents significantly decreases the likelihood of both current and future alcohol and other drug use.

Our goal as parents is to help our child make it to age 21 without abusing alcohol, using illegal drugs, and/or smoking tobacco. When this happens, the odds of his or her beginning to abuse these substances are small to nonexistent.

Finally, increased parent/child time decreases the amount of time a teen is likely to spend with peers who use illegal drugs, prescription drugs without a prescription, and/or over-the-counter medication to get high. Teens spending seven hours or less per week with their parents are approximately twice as likely to have at least one such drug-using friend as are those spending 21 or more hours with parents.

There is no reason to believe that these statistics do not apply to families in South Brunswick.

When Frequent Dinners Aren’t Possible

“But,” you may say, “regular weekday dinners are almost impossible since both my spouse and I work, and overtime is a financial necessity. Besides, our teen also has a busy schedule, juggling homework, extracurricular activities, and a social life. Can’t we do something else to accomplish this important goal?”

The answer is yes.

Does your family enjoy bike riding or going for a hike? Perhaps playing board games or picking apples is more your style. Have you thought about serving at a soup kitchen or visiting residents in a nursing home? Maybe everyone pitching in to cook and freeze a week of healthy meals might be attractive.

The trick is to find and schedule times when all family members are available to engage in fun and meaningful activities. The possibilities are endless, and the process of selecting family activities is a beautiful way to begin a lasting communication process. 

Encouraging the Reluctant Teen

It is normal to expect that teens may be less than enthusiastic over spending time in family activities. Here are a few tips for encouraging the process:

  • Include them in the selection of activities.
  • Be flexible in scheduling family dinners, game nights, reading nights, walks, and/or charitable work so that teens do not have to choose between their “life” and family.
  • Give everyone a role in the chosen activity (e.g., for special dinners, offer a choice of shopping, cooking, cleaning up, or decorating).
  • Take photos of family activities and display them prominently. Create photo albums, videos, or even blog about the events and share them with others. In short, brag!

Finally, relax. There are no “rights” or “wrongs” about trying to increase family time. Some activities will go over well, and others will be a disaster. But the net effect of strengthening family bonds and inoculating your teen against unhealthy behaviors will always occur.

What are your thoughts on this important matter?

REFERENCE

The findings in this Columbia University report come from The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI: Teens and Parents, released on August 24, 2011. The entire report can be read at http://www.casacolumbia.org/upload/2011/2011922familydinnersVII.pdf.

Judy Clack Bowen October 01, 2011 at 07:08 PM
As always...you are right on target with wonderful, sensible advice. Our children are grown and gone but I do remember how important those family rituals were to our time together. It might be the only time in any given day that we actually all sat down together.
Judy Shepps Battle October 02, 2011 at 01:08 AM
Thanks for your comment, Judy. I am sure that was the case in my house too!
meg cox October 02, 2011 at 08:39 PM
As the author of two books on family tradition, I'm a huge believer of the value of family dinners. If anyone is looking for a great resource on this, Laurie David (ex-wife of comedian Larry David) wrote a fantastic book last year called The Family Dinner, which is full of recipes and ideas for making the most of that time.
Judy Shepps Battle October 03, 2011 at 07:28 AM
Megan, thanks for posting this link. The book is indeed fantastic!!

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