~ By Colette
Every fourth Monday in September (this year, that’s September 27) is national “Family Day—A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children.” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University began Family Day in 2001 as an annual reminder of the importance of family dinners.
To promote this day, CASA has just released The Importance of Family Dinners VII, a report about the importance of family dinners. Similar to findings from the past decade, roughly 6 in 10 teens (ranging from 58-61%) reported having dinner with their families at least five times a week.
Findings from the survey show that teenagers who infrequently have family dinners (0-2 times a week) when compared to teens who have family dinners 5 or more times a week, are:
- four times more likely to have used tobacco (15% vs. 4%)
- twice as likely to have used alcohol (33% vs. 15%)
- two-and-a-half times more likely to have used marijuana (21% vs. 8%)
These comparisons sound compelling; however, every Family Day I find myself wondering if it is truly the family dinners that are making the difference. My guess has always been that the family dinners are an indicator of something else happening within the family. For example, they may be a proxy for a high degree of family connectedness, which is associated with decreased substance use. Or, they may be an indicator of family struggles, such as family poverty creating an environment where a single parent has to work during the evening and so is unable to be with his/her children at dinner time.
After having read The Importance of Family Dinners VII my feeling that family dinners are an indicator of some greater family dynamic was only strengthened. For example, it reports that:
- Teens having frequent family dinners spend more time in general with their parents (21 hours a week or more) than their peers who have infrequent family dinners.
- Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to report having high quality relationships with both parents and siblings, compared to teens having few family dinners per week.
Of course, this report found that both spending time with parents and quality relationships are inversely related to substance use:
- Teens who spend less time per week with their parents (7 hours or less) are more likely to use alcohol (29% ) than teens who spend 21 hours a week or more (14%)
- Teens who report excellent relationships with either their mother or father are less likely to have used tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana compared to those who report a very good relationship, or those that report a less than very good relationship.
I tend to approach all research with caution, paying attention to such things as the methodology, research protocol, and whether the conclusions are truly based on the results. However, while I questioned whether family dinners directly impacted teen substance use, I do think they are important or at least not harmful in most situations. So, I went looking for other research about the importance and significance of frequent family dinners, hoping to get some answers to my questions: Do family dinners truly impact teenage substance use? And, can simply having more dinners together make a difference?
Fortunately, some research has begun to answer these questions. Bisahka Sen (2009) specifically seeks to investigate this theory that family dinners are a proxy for other factors such as parent-child connectedness and parental vigilance, and that once these factors are controlled for, family dinners cease to have an effect. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, Dr. Sen found that even after controlling for family connectedness, parental awareness, and having other family activities, having family dinners was associated with lower probabilities for all substance use and running away among girls, and binge drinking, physical fights, property destruction, stealing, and running away among boys.
She also found that even when there is good family connectedness and parental awareness, and even if families do other activities together, having family dinners may provide additional benefits.
As a limitation to her research, Dr. Sen notes that no information is provided about the frequency of other family meals, such as breakfast. And, nothing is known about the atmosphere during these family meals.
Research by Jayne Fulkerson and colleagues (2006) also showed support for family dinners. While this research is cross sectional and thus they note that it “prohibits us from concluding that having more frequent family dinners directly enhances developmental assets or protects adolescents from engaging in high-risk behaviors” (pg. 344), the authors do suggest that efforts to schedule family meals may be a way to keep family members connected. Family meals may provide parents the chance to monitor their children’s activities, and also a way to demonstrate family values and support for their children.
They go on to suggest that “creative and realistic strategies for enhancing and supporting family meals, given the context within which different families live, should be explored to promote healthy adolescent development” (p. 344).
Finally, I feel that my questions about the impact of family dinners have been answered. I can say with ernest, “Celebrate Family Day.” Have a family dinner this Monday, and maybe every Monday after that. Find a family meal ritual that fits your family’s schedule. If not dinner this Monday, then maybe family breakfast this Sunday.
Fulkerson, J.A., Story, M., Mellin, A., Leffert, N., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & French, S.A. (2006). Family dinner meal frequency and adolescent development: Relationships with developmental assets and high-risk behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 337-345.
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2011). The Importance of Family Dinners VII. New York: Author. Retrieved September 22, 2011 from http://www.casacolumbia.org/download.aspx?path=/UploadedFiles/b25fhksc.pdf.
Sen, B. (2010). The relationship between frequency of family dinner and adolescent problem behaviors after adjusting for other family characteristics. Author copy available at mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/24329. Published in Journal of Adolescence, 33, 187-196.
Colette Kimball is Associate Editor of The Prevention Researcher.