Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Five Tips to Bring Teens to Family Dinner

One of the most often quoted statistics about family dinner is that it helps keeps teenagers out of trouble. CASA cites that teens that eat dinner together with their families are less likely to do drugs, drink alcohol, and are more likely to do well in school and with social relationships. The thing is it can be hard to start a family dinner tradition when your kids are older. It's not just your work commitments anymore, it's their homework, sports practices, play rehearsals, and of course, social plans, that start to fill up the evening schedule. This is a good reason to start the family dinner habit when they are young. But even if family dinner is new to you, it's well worth it to your kids to start. Here are some things that have worked for us.

  1. Make food they like and make enough of it. The way to a teen’s heart is through his or her stomach. Make the foods that he or she likes and your teen will be motivated to be home. This is a bit of contradiction from the advice I usually give to families with toddlers and other picky eaters, but hopefully by the teenage years, they have settled into a normal range of preferences that the whole family can live with. Still cook only one meal for the family; that's what makes it "family dinner."
  2. Invite over your teen’s friends and eat together as a group. Though this can’t happen every night, having your teen's friends over for a family meal can also be a great incentive to keep your kid at the table. Our experience has been that the kids really appreciate a home-cooked meal (though it could be take-out) and we make a real connection to the kids that our kid hangs out with. I find that even the most rambunctious teenage boys are pretty polite and agreeable when in the family dinner setting. Again, make enough food.
  3. Have a set dinner time and expect your teen to show up, but be flexible. If dinner is at 7pm, then your kid knows when he or she is expected home for dinner. Make it a rule that they have to be there. Then it’s on both of you to make dinner and to be there to eat it. Be flexible though.  If you know ahead of time that sports practice or rehearsals will conflict, set alternate dinnertimes for those nights. If your kid complains that he or she is with friends, invite the friends over! It can be hard to keep to a strict schedule, especially during holidays and the summer, so I’ll let my teen skip out of family dinner occasionally. But I keep mental track to make sure not too many dinners slip by in any given week. Since it is such a solid tradition in our house, I usually just have to say something like, “Hey you’ve missed too many dinners at home.” The phrase, “We are having burgers,” works well too (see Tip #1).
  4. Make your teen cook a meal. This can be a tall order, but valuable for both of you. One family I know with two teens, has each of them responsible for the family meal one night a week. It’s a big help to the parents obviously, and the teens get a big sense of accomplishment from it. If you couple this with the favorite foods idea (back to #1), then your kid can learn how to make his or her favorite dishes.
  1. The dinner table is a no-nagging zone, and no gadgets either. You want your teen to come to the table and you hope there will be some positive conversation and chatting about his or her life or what’s going on with the family in general. It’s not the time to nag or run down a list of complaints or worries. Even if your kid brings up some hot topic (i.e., "My math teacher is such a jerk."), use the time to listen or talk calmly about the issue, not to nag or criticize. (You might reply, "Really? What's up?" and then just listen, stifling your urge to editorialize.)  You want your kid to see the dinner table as a positive part of the day, not a grilling session. If you want to go back to that hot topic, find another time to do it. Also, TV, cell-phone, computers, the newspaper, whether used by the teen or the adult are counter-productive to conversation and interaction. Family dinner time can be as short as 15-20 minutes, but it's very valuable. Everyone can lay off their gadgets and connect the old-fashioned way..

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Solistice; Family Meals

The summer solstice is upon us and there is already a notable change in dynamics for family meals. Though NYC public schools are still in session, record breaking temperatures and longer days of light have already had  an effect our dinner table. Summertime is a great time for family meals, in part because schedules are more relaxed and easy meals are welcome. Kids are tired and hungry after camp and outdoor play (hopefully) and seem more willing to eat just about anything. Perhaps it's that the summer favorite foods of BBQ and lots of fruit are just more appealing to kids and adults alike.

The other night we had a funny dinner dilemma that was related to the seasons. I wanted to just have appetizers and salad for dinner; it was in the 90s and so hot in our un-air conditioned house. My husband wanted to have something more “real.” I guess you could say we compromised. I put out some fresh mozzarella and a loaf of baguette with some salami and olives. Life was good as I had just went grocery shopping at the Food Coop. The kids devoured the spread while my husband and I nibbled and chatted about the day. We discussed whether this would be enough for dinner. He and my teenage son said decidedly “NOT!” So my husband then made a Chinese eggplant dish with rice, feeling emboldened to make it extra spicy since the more finicky eaters had already had eaten a good deal of the "first course." He is a big believer in spicy food on hot day.

The point is that this summertime dinner was very fluid, very relaxed. The kids’ bedtimes have been creeping later, though sometimes resulting in tears of tiredness. We are more ready to offer ice cream or fruit juice pops for dessert, as they both cool down and help round out lighter meals (or meals that they won’t really eat.) That’s what summertime is all about. If the hectic schedules have been holding you back from family dinner, use the summertime as a good time to experiment. Try a quick meal or an expanded, grazing one. Use this time of more daylight as an excuse to "do less" while getting more out of family dinner. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What is it about family dinner? Tips from research

"The moral seemed to be 'Eat dinner, read early.'" Dr. David Dickinson
Thanks to a throw-away comment in Working Moms Break, I found a NPR interview from 2008 (Family Dinner Reconstructed by Alix Spiegel) that was a goldmine of info on family dinner. The radio interview profiled 3 researchers (David Dickinson, Vanderbilt University, Barbara Fiese, Syracuse University and University of Illinois, and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer of University of Minnesota) who initially were studying different topics, but all came to the conclusion: family dinner matters.

The big research question with family dinner is a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma of "which came first?" To use the public health research terms, do highly "functional" families have their act together enough to make family dinner, and thus the "functional" nature of their family leads to better outcomes? Or is there a clear, added benefit of family dinner? If all families are equally "functional," do the ones that have family dinner together still have better outcomes? The research seems to indicate that the latter is true: family dinner helps all families do better.

"Even in families where relationships are difficult, family meals can predict better outcomes." Dr. Neumark-Sztainer.

The next question is why? What is it about family dinner? There seem to be a few themes that emerged from from their disparate research, which ranged from early childhood literacy development (Dickinson) to families with asthmatic children (Fiese) to adolescents at risk of eating disorders (Neumark-Sztainer).
Three Key Elements of Family Dinner
1) content and quality of dinner conversation, 
2) a set routine where meals have a beginning and an end, 
3) empathy and genuine concern about the participants and their daily activities. 
Dickinson found that the content of dinner table discussion was of key importance. The quality of conversations at mealtime was the strongest predictor of later development of children's language and literacy development. This trumped even the amount of book reading that was done with a child. Eating dinner together lead to having complex conversations, telling stories of the day, explaining unfamiliar words to young child and this, in turn, led to better literacy and language development. This is backed by research that the sheer number of words a child is exposed to at an early age varies greatly among and is positively related to reading and language development. Fiese found that family dinner led a decreased number of emergency room visits for children with asthma.

It begs the question whether all families can achieve this high level of involvement and positive interaction during dinner or other meal times. But I think that the best way to do family dinner is to just start. Try to set out a routine a few times a week.  You don't have to be prefect; it's not rocket science. Some days are going to be better than others. I think the real-life benefits become apparent pretty quickly and that fosters more communication and positive role-modeling for everyone. 

"There's one solid certainty about dinner. It is one of the few times in modern life when families can sit down together, speak face to face, build relationships, monitor behavior --all things that simply can't hurt." Alix Spiegel, paraphrasing Dr. Dickinson

Friday, June 11, 2010

Distracted parenting: more discussion on why gadget-free time is important

Profiled in a second article in the NYT, Sherry Turkle, a research at MIT, has been looking into the impact of ubiquitous technology on parenting, family and social interactions. Her findings: It's not just teenagers that are shutting out the world that's right in front of their faces to text, videochat, or Facebook; it's their parents too. The effects are measurable: many less words spoken from parent to child, far less positive interactions when devices like cell phones are available.

It's normal and useful for a busy parent to be able to check in at work or to have a non-parenting outlet that smartphones and laptops can provide during long days at home with the kids. But there has to be balance and we, as parents, have to be vigilant about our own "addictions" and bad habits. Dinner and meal times, at the very least, should be gadget-free zones. One of the key reasons, I think, that family dinner is so important is the dialogue and discussion among family members. Future research may be able to point to reasons why this is: it might be the actual number of word spoken during a meal, or the opportunity for exchange on critical matters, like grades or family values, or it may be the role-modeling and negotiations that occurs at the table. We are not really sure what it is that works about family dinner, but there is evidence that cell phones, TV, computers can shut that all down.

Sherry Turkle's new book "Alone Together" will be out next year.
The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In. Julie Scelfo, NYT, 06.0910

This topic has been covered before, of course:
iphones, blackberries? Why the parent in you should put them down, Alice Kaltman, A Child Grows in Brooklyn, 4.28.10
Bad Mommies Use Cell Phones. Rhoda Kaysen, Momlogic, 10.06.09

Monday, June 7, 2010

Family Dinner as Gadget-Free Zone

 Family dinner is a way to focus in an age of multi-tasking

The front page of the NYT: Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price (in Focus and Family Life).  By Matt Richtel, 06.07.10
The problem: The blessing and the curse of modern technology as it threatens to invade and distract every aspect of life.
The challenge: Finding positive ways to re-claim time and prioritize the ways we spend it.
One change that can help bring focus, routine, and daresay, "quality time": family dinner.

I am a big fan of modern technology: blogger and Google be praised for making this platform so easily available that I can write this blog, I'm never without my smartphone (though I ditched my AT&T constrained IPhone for a PalmPre, sniff, sniff), I have several domain names and email addresses for different aspects of life, and our family livelihood depends on a technology company my husband co-founded 13 years ago (squeaking through the Internet bust of the late 1990s). I text my teen and my tween to keep tabs on them and my four-year old is sort of a wizard on the keyboard, deftly negotiating Barbie.com and NickJr.com. I am no Luddite.

But we draw the line at dinner. No TV, no computer, no phones or texting, no rushing through dinner to get to one of these devices. It is the time to shut off the distractions and focus on the people in front of us, even if the dinner table can be a cacophony of clanging plates, last-minute requests or grumbling about the night's menu. It is not exactly quiet and peaceful. But the lack of technology at the table makes a huge difference. Knowing that dinner is a dedicated chunk of time with no outside distractions allows the space to let conversations unfold. Even if that chunk of time is just 20-30 minutes, the focus can be on story-telling, relating, sympathizing, joking, or whatever. It's enough time to see what happens, and to just really be together, rather than wondering what's in the Inbox, on the phone or on Facebook.

So, make dinner as a gadget-free zone; it's a solution to the thoroughly modern dilemma of how to reconnect to those right in front of us.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Family dinner as public health intervention: we need to know more

Is family breakfast as good as family dinner? Warning: This is a research question.

Family dinner is important, almost everyone agrees. There are many "feel-good" stories about family dinner scattered through cyberspace as well as hard-boiled facts about how kids who eat with their families fare better on a variety of measures. I, and others, even argue that family dinner can be good for the parents and significant others involved, too. All this, true. But is that all there is to it?

Lately, I've been trying to think about family dinner more like a social scientist or public health researcher. (That's my background, after all.) If you drill down into the concept of family dinner, you can think of eating dinner together as an intervention. Studies show that the "intervention" of family dinner does indeed contribute to better outcomes on a wide variety of measures, including lower engagement in risky behaviors like underage drinking, better relationships with parents and siblings, and reduced risk of suicide (data here). This is an important message to promote, but why does family dinner work? How does it work? Can we decipher what aspects of family dinner are critical to its overall success? Can breakfast count too?

The National Children's Health Survey collects data on how often children eat together with their families as well as a variety of outcome measures. Several university research centers (CASA, University of Minnesota, Harvard, to name a few) focus on the topic of family nutrition, family dynamics, and family dinner as related to specific behaviors. There is some great research out there, but the specifics rarely make it to the general audiences of parents struggling to get meals to the table or to make mealtime enjoyable, not just a battle.

I personally believe that family dinner is an answer to many critical issues we experience personally and that we experience as a society. I know it is difficult for busy families to pull it off, but I feel the effort is well worth it. Family dinner doesn't really lend itself to policy change, but it is connected to positive health behavior. Basically, I'm arguing that this is a topic that is worthy of more in-depth research, study, and discussion on a broad level. We need to figure out why family dinner works, how it works, and how best to support families of all income levels in creating mealtime traditions that support growth and development for kids, parents, and families overall. 

Child Trends Data Bank on Family Meals
Family Meals Matter Facebook Fan Group