Family Dinner Does Indeed Make a Difference
> 9/24/2007 11:06:15 AM

The homely parental maxim insisting that children who eat dinner with mom and dad are less likely to get themselves into trouble elsewhere may, in fact, be true. A new study conducted by Columbia University and funded by the Safeway Family Day initiative finds that, the more frequently teens eat dinner at home, the better their grades and the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Numbers culled from the interviews of 1000 randomly chosen teens and 500 parents speak for themselves: when compared to peers who eat at home at least five nights a week, 12-13-year olds who eat two or fewer family dinners per week are two and a half more times as likely to have drunk alcohol, four and a half times as likely to have used tobacco, and six times as likely to have smoked marijuana. Most 12-year olds have, thankfully, not engaged in any of these behaviors, and the numbers decline as subjects grow older: 14-15-year olds are three times as likely to have used marijuana and two and half times as likely to have used tobacco; for 16-17-year olds the numbers are 2 times for pot and just under two times for tobacco, respectively. Still, these stats are considerable. And the fact that certain children aged 12-17 eat at home on most evenings and that their behavioral patterns differ in a positive way from their less familial peers serves as a reflection of the values inherent in their upbringing as much as it does their dispositions or degrees of personal discipline.

In another positive trend, 60% of the sample included themselves in the family dinner camp, eating at home at least five nights a week. Contrary to popular opinion, teens are hardly averse to the practice, and they're not eating at home to avoid punishment: a resounding 84% said that they preferred eating with parents and siblings to eating alone (though the numbers predictably aligned with pre-established habits). The benefits of bonds further strengthened by eating together do not stop at discouraging drug use. Teens in the frequent family dinner camp were more likely to describe their academic marks as consisting of "mostly A's and B's" by a score of 64% to 49%.

Of course, the dinner table is one of the most convenient places to stage discussions on the very habits mentioned above, and parents who are absent from the lives of their children at dinnertime are themselves more likely to behave badly, offering less structure and support to the teens who need it most. As these kids grow older, they may feel an overwhelming urge to move toward independence at the expense of those very family dinners, and forced attendance will likely prove less effective; their degree of exposure to alcohol and drugs obviously increases during this period as well. So what can the 16% of parents who wonder what their teens are doing on evenings away from home do to assuage their fears? Should they only further emphasize that invaluable time spent together? Or will efforts to reign in their teens only achieve the opposite effect?

Family dinner obviously does not equal safety from drugs and crime. It doesn't serve to save teens from the varied, nefarious forces conspiring against them. It does not deter the rhetorical boogeyman. And just as loving inclusion helps to discourage otherwise destructive behaviors, unwarranted authoritarian oversight enhances their appeal in many cases. Family ties are indeed the strongest, and reinforcing the importance of such unity and the maintenance of personal well-being can only encourage good things.

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