By Martha Iachetta
What’s dinner time like at your house? Fifteen years ago my graduate- level Family Counseling class sat in a circle answering that question– alternately cringing and laughing at the awkwardness, humor, longing, or strife within our descriptions of family dinners growing up. We realized how much information about connections, challenges, and responsibilities within a family can be gained with that one simple probe. A report I recently read on “The Importance of Family Dinners” by Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) reminded me of that activity when its annual parenting study posed that question (and several others) to families around the country. The findings consistently suggest that regular family dinners are among the most effective parenting tools available for healthy communication and the prevention of adolescent substance abuse. Many parents intuitively strive to create that routine in their homes–easiest to do when children are young–and now there is proof that the effort is worth it.
What is so magical about a family dinner? I can tell you anecdotally that when the parents and siblings of an eleventh grader I work with in Student Assistance learned about their child’s extensive marijuana use, they made some immediate changes at home. When I asked the student whether or not family dinners were a regular occurrence, the answer was “every night.” Conversely, a middle school student who began experimenting with marijuana at eleven years old reports that his mother gave up on getting him and his two older siblings to eat together when he was in sixth grade. His siblings are regular marijuana users and their use took off that year as well.
In terms of prevention, a non-substance using ninth grader I know describes the absence of family dinners in her home with yearning. “I’d love a meal each night where everyone sat down together to eat and talk. I’d even cook it myself! But even when there is something made, my mom’ll eat in her room in front of the TV and the rest of us will just help ourselves when we are hungry.” She struggles with a sense of isolation and low-grade depression and, while she hopefully will not abuse alcohol or other drugs as she gets older, her emotional discomfort is a clear indicator of a higher risk.
This is by no means a judgment of families that do not regularly eat together. I think it is less about the meal and more about how active and involved parents are in their children’s lives. CASA’s annual surveys determine that teens from homes that routinely practiced at least ten out of the following twelve parenting guidelines are less likely to get involved with substance abuse. And, of the twelve characteristics, family dinners are deemed the most important. According to CASA, the most effective parents:
– Monitor what their teens watch on TV
– Supervise what they do on the internet
– Put restrictions on what music CDs they listen to/buy
– Know where their teens are after school and on weekends
– Expect to be and are told the truth about where their teens are actually going
– Are “very aware” of their teens’ academic performance
– Impose and enforce a curfew
– Make clear they would be “extremely” upset if their teen used pot
– Eat dinner with their teen most every night
– Turn off the TV during dinner
– Assign their teen regular chores
– Have an adult present when the teen returns from school
The presence of six to nine traits indicated a higher risk for substance abuse and five or fewer were linked to youth at the highest risk of all.
Curious about how this theory stood up to real life, I asked several students from both the high school and middle school if their parents adhered to these strategies and if family dinners were a regular part of their lives. Almost every student I spoke to said their parents practiced most if not all of the bulleted parenting techniques when they were younger. However, most experienced a drop off, particularly with nightly family dinners, once they or their siblings entered high school. Interestingly, the level of risks they reported taking or not taking with alcohol and other drugs (AOD) were remarkably consistent with the study’s findings.
The students who were either members of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) or attended substance-abuse-prevention-related leadership conferences were all non-users and described parents who practice ten or more of the CASA-identified protective strategies. The students who did drink alcohol and smoke pot but were careful to never drive or get in a car with someone under the influence reported six to nine of the parenting strategies utilized in their homes. And the student who reported five or fewer also reported the riskiest AOD- related choices, including driving with people who had been drinking or smoking marijuana.
One exception was a non-drinking, high-achieving student whose mother teaches within the Smithfield school district. This student “talk[s] to her mother about everything,” often during car rides to one of the many activities in which she participates. However, regular family dinners are simply impossible because of their busy schedules. She said many of the values implied within the aforementioned list are practiced without the need for reminders or enforcement because they were so strongly instilled when she and her siblings were younger. Clearly her experience shows that active parenting can take different shapes and forms.
I think most parents share an ideal of a consistent dinner time when family members enjoy their food and conversation and participate in both the preparation and the clean up. However, the ideal is often not the reality. By the time kids enter high school, when opportunities for parental involvement and family conversation can be most crucial, there are more obstacles to eating together. Many families are faced with busy schedules, long commutes, exhaustion, irritability, high levels of stress, lack of an established routine, the allure of the TV, and teens less interested in communal meal times. What was a simple ritual can easily turn out to be not simple at all.
Family dinners and the other eleven CASA-identified parenting practices tend to naturally decline as teens get older, but that is possibly when they are most important. Smithfield mother and Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition member Dena Carlone, who also has a private counseling practice in Greenville, suggests that parents who struggle with dinner routines remember that it is okay to keep things simple. Time together is more about discussion than food and can happen at any time. The important thing is to sit down and catch up on each other’s day. She recommends that parents stay informed about sports and other events going on at school and to use them as conversation starters. If teens are reluctant to talk, parents can share about their day rather than continuing to probe. Be available to listen when your children are ready–first attempts to talk may be brief but after some down time and with knowledge that your availability is routine, teens will volunteer more information when they are ready.
If teens are reluctant or parents experience difficulty in following the traits of active parenting, trying to change everything about rules and dinners at once will likely be met with resentment and resistance. This obviously nullifies the intended positive effects. Other challenges may include parents not being in agreement about how active and present they ought to be in their children’s lives. Small steps are better than none and sometimes the more proactive parent needs to do the best he or she can within the constraints of their situation. Being consistent and seeking support when necessary is worth the difficulty.
Suggestions from Barbara Karpinski, a Smithfield mother of three, include making regular family meals a goal to strive for, regardless of how often they actually happen. Several times a week she prepares a meal with her two daughters and everyone sits down to eat together. Her son shoots hoops before supper to burn off extra energy, an arrangement that she finds helps meals go more smoothly. Smithfield parent of four, Kelly Judge, makes regular family dinners “a personal mission.” Her family is extremely busy, but she believes strongly in this family ritual. The structure includes a prayer before eating and each member staying at the table until everyone is done. “Conversation is loose, but, even if it is just for fifteen minutes, we do it.”
One community member I spoke to describes how conversation is kept light during meals, while others look for a deeper connection by going around the table asking everyone to take a turn sharing at least one highlight, joy, or sorrow from their day. Additional conversation topics from students and parents include school, sports, friends, social activities, future meal or chore planning, current events, family issues, and problems. Of course the children’s ages make a difference. One family with a single child in elementary school entertains themselves after quiet meals by asking each other age-appropriate trivia questions from “It’s Okay to be Smart” by Brainquest. A parent with a younger child diagnosed with ADHD gives him a weighted lap pad when he has a hard time sitting still and keeps their meal times brief but consistent.
The pay offs from family dinners go beyond substance abuse prevention. Not only is it an opportunity for family members to simply be together; there are other identifiable positive results as well. CASA reports that high school students who eat dinner with their parents five to seven times a week find it is easier to confide in at least one of their parents, experience greater parental pride, have less tension at home, have strong family relationships, and tend to do better in school. Sometimes conversations are active, some meal times are fairly quiet, but consistency and parental availability are key.
For more information and ideas, please feel free to add your comments below, contact me directly at miachetta (at) cox (dot) net or look this study up yourself at www.casacolumbia.org.