Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lessons from Research: Parenting Style and Family Dinner

Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes. ~Chinese Proverb @AskDrVicki, RT@eatingarainbow
 A newly released study from The University of Minnesota's Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) hones in on an important aspect of successful family dinners: parenting style. Parents who were "authoritative" meaning understanding of their children, but able to set clear rules and expectations were more successful at creating and maintaining family dinner routines among their teens, both initially and 5 years later.

Parents (maternal and paternal) were classified as authoritative, authoritarian, permissive or neglectful based on the teens' answers to a battery of questions about their parents. (I'd like to see this list of questions! :) ) Authoritative parents were "empathic and respectful," but maintain clear expectations and rules in the household. Authoritarian parents were strict disciplinarians that showed little warmth. The permissive style was empathic but with few rules or expectations, and the neglectful style...well, as you can guess, cold, no rules, not showing care or attention. (Sigh, one hopes this was rare, but they are teenage perceptions.)

Using multivariate analysis, parenting style was matched up with how often the teens ate dinner with their families, in addition to other social behaviors. Both boys and girls in the study (over 1600 middle school and 3000 high school students) ate dinner with their families more often if they considered their parents to be authoritative. 

Many parents today strive to be "authoritative," even if they never thought of it that way. We want to listen to our kids and be understanding of their needs, but at the end of the day, rules and routines are important to make family life run more smoothly. When the balance tips more in favor to the child's individual desires and wants, and less toward family rules and standards, the parent heads towards the permissive zone. Parents today have been chided in the media, sometimes unfairly, for excessive permissiveness. The lean toward permissiveness may be a reaction to the authoritarian or neglectful parenting styles of the past, or it could be a result of less family support and structure and more frazzled parents who are working more and have less family time. Most would agreed, though, that there is hell to pay for "giving in" to our kids too often, both on a day-to-day basis and in the long run. As all parents in the trenches know, it can be hard to strike the right balance.

The big lesson of this study for me, and I think parents need to hear it loud and clear: it is OK to have rules and routines. In fact, it is better. You are not necessarily squashing your child's individuality or creativity or self-esteem by setting some household rules to live by. Dinner time, while it can be a struggle in terms of time and commitment, is the perfect way to establish not only an important routine, but a model of rules that your family lives by. These rules might include: we are respectful to each other, we listen and talk together and take turns, we are grateful for the food on the table and the effort it embodies (and we don't ask for something different or demand plain pasta every night). It sounds so simple, but it can be so hard in practice. Never fear mom and dads, if you can get and keep your kids at the table, especially as they age into teens, it is well worth it.

Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2010
Project EAT additional Resources
Update: Just found a great blog post by littlestomaks.com breaking down parenting style as it can affect family dinner dynamics

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