Q: Our school district is doing Family Day (Sept. 22). The organizer, who wants me to lead our school's effort, says that kids whose families eat meals together do better in school and are less likely to become obese. Is that true? If so, more families might make the effort.
A: With many parents working full-time and juggling kids' after-school schedules, family dinners at home may be going the way of landlines. And that would be a shame, say folks at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, the organizers of Family Day.
CASA has tracked family eating patterns for nearly two decades. Its studies suggest that children who eat dinner often with their families are more likely to get better grades, have fewer school absences, be less bored, experience less stress and feel closer to family members than children who share meals with parents infrequently. Teens who have dinner with parents five or more times a week are also less likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol.
There is a nutritional benefit as well, says historian Cody Delistraty. In a recent article in The Atlantic ("The Importance of Eating Together"), he cites research showing that kids who don't eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week are 40 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do.
But Family Day isn't just about dinner.
"I'm a fan of what Family Day seeks to accomplish because it's basically about being present in kids' lives, being there to listen when they want to tell you something," says California youth counselor Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom) Consulting. "Driving your teen to hockey practice, cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, shopping for school supplies or getting your kindergartner ready for bed -- all are great casual opportunities to check in with your kids and really hear and respond to what they're thinking."
The trick is to be a smart questioner and a patient listener, says Gehley. She suggests that your conversations will bring your kids closer if you try the following:
-- Ease into communication. Don't pepper kids with questions right after school or the minute they get into the car or sit down for supper.
-- Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer. Instead, try: Why do you think ...? ... Tell me about ... What do you see? ... Why do you suppose? ... How did this compare with ...?
-- Ask questions because you're genuinely excited about their answers. "Kids know when you're nagging and they'll clam up," says Gehley.
-- Give kids time to think before responding. "Teachers call this 'wait time,'" Gehley says, "and while it may be a little frustrating to you, it's important."
-- Don't substitute texting for talking. "When you set the dinner table, remember: It's not fork, knife and cellphone," says Gehley. "Make the dinner table a tech-free zone. You can't focus on your kids if you're listening for the ping of texts and emails arriving on your phone."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)