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Family Dinners Are Important For Child Development

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While I didn't appreciate it at the time, growing up in a quaint, tree-lined suburban bubble was definitely a net positive. No, I wasn't exposed to any counter-culture happenings -- or, more importantly, the iconic Chicago music scene that was exploding in the early 90s -- but I was able to bike around town without any worries, and had plenty of room to throw around balls of various shapes and sizes. That said, it wasn't all fun.

Every night, our parents would make us drop whatever we were doing and force us to sit down at the kitchen table for a family dinner. Imagine: having to pause that game of Mario just as you're about to defeat Bowser to spent time with your family!

Turns out, they weren't just punishing us. They were teaching us some valuable life lessons.

Family meals, again and again, are strongly encouraged to help adolescents and teens in a wide variety of ways. And it has little to do with the actual food that's being prepared and eaten. (Although, family dinners do end up containing less fast food, which is good for anyone's health.) And that's because of the hardcore bonding that is taking place during that hour or so.

Among the benefits of sitting down to regular dinners with the fam:

- Kids that have regular family dinners are exposed to roughly 1,000 more "rare words" than those who do not. Compare that to 143 "rare words" that kids get from having parents regularly read books.
- Children who are victims of cyberbullying "bounce back" quicker if they have regular family dinners.
- Kids who eat regular family meals are less obese.

One 2012 study also found that regular family dinners lead to adolescents having less depressive symptoms, lower rates of substance use, and lower rates of school delinquency. I spoke to Dr. Kelly Musick, one of the study's authors, about the benefits of the family dinner.

Can you go through the methodology for the study?

Dr. Kelly Musick: We used data from a large, nationally representative survey that includes rich characteristics of adolescents and their families and follows them over time. This allows us to account for factors that are correlated with the resources and relationships that tend to go hand and hand with both regular family meals and teen well-being. That is, it helps us sort out the extent to which family meals matter for teens above and beyond their correlation with other things like parental income and involvement.

Were the findings particularly surprising?

Musick: We thought that the family meals link to adolescent well-being might disappear once we did a careful accounting of the ways in which families who regularly eat together are different from those who don't. Although the associations we estimated were weaker than what many others have found, some of the associations nonetheless held up to controls for family resources and relationships. This was a bit surprising -- and suggests that there might be something to routines and rituals around food that nurture teen well-being in a way that isn't easily replicated.

Were you brought up in a family that had regular family dinners? If so, do you think it had an effect?

Musick: No -- and probably not in the long run! Some of our associations held up to controls for the various ways that families who regularly eat together are different from those who don't, but others didn't. And we found little evidence of links that persisted into young adulthood. Parents do a lot for their kids, and there are various ways to show support and foster closeness. On average, looking over many families, adolescents do a bit better when they often share meals with their parents. But hidden in the averages is lots of variation. Some families, maybe because of work or other mealtime conflicts, might connect better over breakfast or a nightly walk with the dog.

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