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

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