Q: Our middle school sent home tips for back-to-school success; one of them was to "enjoy family dinners together frequently." With three teens in grades 7 through 11 who are going in different directions, that's tough. Is there any research on this?
A: There is. Since 2001, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has studied the impact of family dinners on family interactions.
The research shows that more frequent family dinner gatherings ensure higher quality communication between kids and parents. Eating a meal together strengthens family relationships, something that's particularly important for teens as they begin to forge influential peer relationships.
Joseph Califano Jr., the founder of CASA, emphasizes "that the magic that happens at family dinners isn't the food on the table, but the conversations and family engagement around the table."
A senior policy analyst at CASA further explains, "Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to say that their parents know a lot about what's really going on in their lives. ... Family dinners are the perfect opportunity when kids can talk to their parents and their parents can listen and learn."
A 2012 CASA study showed that in homes where family meals were frequent (five to seven times a week), teens were more likely to say they had good relationships with their parents. In turn, they were less likely to say that they felt stressed and were less likely to use marijuana, alcohol and tobacco. When the quality of teens' communication with parents declined, their likelihood of using marijuana, alcohol and tobacco increased.
To remind parents of the importance of family mealtime, every year CASA celebrates Family Day as "a day to eat dinner with your children." This year, it's Sept. 26. For more information, go to centeronaddiction.org.
A 2016 Common Sense Media survey of parents of kids 2 to 17 representing a range of American socioeconomic and ethnic groups found that more than 90 percent of respondents viewed conversations during dinner as an important way to learn about what's going on in their kids' lives. Seventy percent of the respondents said they carved out time to have dinner together five or more times a week.
While the family dinner isn't some relic of the 1950s, today's mobile devices are unwelcome newcomers to the table. Research shows that cellphones next to forks can disrupt and shut down conversations even when the devices aren't in use.
Thirty-five percent of Common Sense Media survey respondents said they'd had an argument about using devices at the dinner table. More than half said they were concerned that devices at the table "were hurting their conversations," writes Michael Robb, Common Sense director of research.
To encourage more families to declare the dinner table a tech-free zone, Common Sense Media has launched the Device-Free Dinner campaign. "Our devices keep us connected, informed and engaged, but dinner time is an important time to just say 'no,'" urges James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. "Everything from better grades to a healthier lifestyle has been linked to eating together regularly as a family."
Steyer invites families to take the Device-Free Dinner challenge, and "set an example for kids that we all need to carve out face-to-face conversation time in our lives."
For more information, go to commonsensemedia.org.
(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.)