Family Dinner Study Getting Stale: Does Eating Together Really Prevent Drug Abuse?

Just when I thought we'd made it through annual Family Dinner Day (September 28) without nary a big-media mention of the purported benefits of family meals, I sat down with my guilty pleasure, the New York Time's Sunday Style section, to find this lead story -"The Guilt-Trip Casserole: The stress of gathering Mom, Dad, and teenagers to the table".

We've been reading about the perks of dining en famille since 1996 when the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University put out it's first study on what would launch an annual holiday of sorts (FYI, the last Tuesday of September). Basically, these very simplistic surveys link all kinds of desirable outcomes to dining with a parent or two on a regular basis. Better grades, less depression, less substance abuse. Lest the ivy-league name confers instant quality and trust, let me just say that Nickelodeon, the same folks who've brought us SpongeBob, sponsored the study one year. The surveys are not unlike projects designed and conducted by undergraduates in research methods 101 courses. Not exactly rigorous science.

Do kids in families who eat together do better on all manner of important outcomes from school to drugs and sex. Yes. Do we know eating together causes all these good behaviors? No, not at all. At least the Sunday Styles writer included this very helpful information though not until half-way through the article. There are also the quotes from a real expert who does real research on the issue - Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota, whose work explores the factors that might account for the relationship, that fuzzy factor or factors that promote both family dining and the feel-good outcomes. Maybe parental attachment? Sense of security? Family bonding. All possibilities. And then there's the other expert who had the good sense to point out that family dinners are no "silver bullet" warding off substance abuse.

And yet....and yet..... the rest of the article does little to dispell the notion that we should worry more about getting a meal and our kids at the table rather than getting to know our kids or doing the really hard work of listening to our kids day in and day out, of telling them no when it's so much easier to say yes, of not taking out our hard, stressful day on them, and all the other messy stuff that makes for good parenting and secure kids. Not such great news when we have so many neatly defined (and often neatly packaged) commodities that have become identified with successful parenting.


Bobby said...

There are so many factors that go into good parenting. The fact that a family sits down together for meals regularly is just another indication that the family is well bonded and also well organized. Having the security of family dinners just makes good sense. Whether it actually does have an impact on teenagers and drug abuse is really a matter of common sense. If the family mmakes time to dine together it would follow that it also makes time to support one another.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Bobby, thanks for taking the time to comment. And yes, I agree, good parenting involves a wide range of behaviors and traits that cannot be reduced to eating family dinners. So the much-touted "family dinner study" most likely shows, like you've said, that parents that do other good stuff also frequently sit down and eat with their kids.