For some, the term “family dinner” conjures up a picture of Beaver Cleaver and his parents, Ward (in his necktie) and June (with her pearls). That picture is probably pretty dated, but family dinners are, thankfully, not a thing of the past.
It turns out that the number of families who eat dinner together at least five times a week has remained pretty constant at around 60 percent over the last 10 years. And, according to Columbia University’s Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, there are numerous apparent benefits for teens that are associated with this habit.
The Columbia study, which has been revised and repeated six times since 2001, compares two groups:
• Parents and teens who have dinner together five or more times each week.
• Parents and teens who have dinner together two or fewer times each week.
In the 2010 study, more than 2,000 teens and almost 500 parents were surveyed to generate these results.
• Teens from families who infrequently eat dinner together had significantly increased experience with substance use.
• They were twice as likely to have used tobacco.
• They showed an 89 percent increase in having used marijuana.
• They showed a 50 percent increase in having used alcohol.
• They were much more likely to have friends who:
• Use marijuana (58 percent increase)
• Use Ecstasy (63 percent increase)
• Abuse prescription drugs (50 percent increase)
• Use LSD, cocaine or heroine (25 percent increase)
Additionally, increased family dinners have a clear positive correlation with improved academic performance. Higher academic performance, in addition to the obvious benefits, is in itself consistently associated with lower rates of substance abuse.
Families that regularly eat together report higher rates of general discussion about all aspects of child and adolescent life, including discussions of current events, school and sports, friends and social activities, and family issues or problems.
Family dinner also seems to improve general relationships and the sense of well-being within families. Seventy percent of teens who eat dinner with their parents five to seven times a week report that their parents are proud of them compared with 48 percent of teens who dine with their families two or fewer times a week. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of teens, 72 percent, report that eating dinner with their parents is either “fairly important” or “very important.”
Whether true “cause and effect” or simply association, these results are too impressive to ignore. Something happens at the dinner table when the opportunity is offered and that “something” is generally very positive. It is too simple to not take advantage of, so think about it.
Dr. Jonathan Wood is a pediatric critical care specialist and medical director of Eastern Maine Medical Center’s pediatric intensive care unit.