(Originally published June 18, 2012)
Some years back, I remember a television actor making a public service announcement suggesting parents have dinner with their kids maybe once or twice a week. I was flabbergasted - there actually had to be a public service announcement to tell people this?!
Then I realized that in our society, we probably do. The notion of mommies and daddies, home and hearth, and meals with your own kids are becoming less and less the portrait of America.
According to a study, "The average parent spends 38.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with his or her child."
Let me repeat that: Only 38.5 minutes in an entire week!
By simply eating dinner together each night and making an effort to talk to your kids, you can quadruple that number. You'll get to know your kids. Isn't that the point of having a family?
According to Harvard research, "Family dinners are more important than play, story time, and other family events in the development of a child's vocabulary." The dinner table is the social center of families, so it is no wonder that's where our kids learn to talk. It gives them "real live" demos and practice in speech and social interactions.
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine show that frequent family meals are associated with "a lower risk of smoking, drinking, pot use, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts. Kids between the ages of 11 and 18 also get better grades." Wow. All of that is helped just by having dinner every night with your kids?!
The archives also reveal that family meals are "related to better nutritional intake and decreased risk for unhealthy weight control practices. Families eating meals together 'every day' generally consume higher amounts of important nutrients [such as] calcium, fiber, iron, vitamins B6, B12, C, and E, and consume less overall fat compared to families who 'never' or 'only sometimes' eat meals together." This is probably because mommy cooked dinner.
Additionally, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that "the more often teenagers have dinner with their parents, the less time they spend with boyfriends or girlfriends, and the less they are going to be sexually active." Not only do your kids have less time to hang out, but having a really good relationship with you makes them less likely to search for closeness by becoming sexually active. This is why you see a lot of young sexual activity in divorced families where mommy decided she didn't need a man.
A study conducted by the University of Minnesota also showed "adolescent girls who have frequent family meals, and a positive atmosphere during those meals, are less likely to have eating disorders." When I read that, I couldn't help but be reminded of my own family. During my last couple years of high school, I went down the anorexia path. We had dinner every night as a family, but it was a nightmare because my mom and dad were always angry about something. The atmosphere at dinner was not pleasant. So, it's not just being at home that makes the difference. You have to make family dinners a good experience.
Another survey asked kids, "What's the most important part of the dinner?" What do you think their answers were? The food? No! 54 percent said the important part of dinner was sharing, catching up, talking, and interacting.
The surveyors also asked teens, "Would you say your parents regularly make time to check-in with you and find out what's happening with you or not?" Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners, teens who have infrequent family dinners were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to report that their parents don't bother to check-in with them. Teens who have frequent family dinners are twice as likely to spend 21 hours or more per week (an average of at least 3 hours per day) with their parents.
The bottom line? Your family structure and dynamic affects your kids, especially at dinnertime.