Want Your Teen to Behave? Well, Pass the Potatoes.

From Norman Rockwell to Jon & Kate, American pop culture has celebrated the ritual of the family dinner. New research into adolescent behavior suggests these multigenerational meals are a tradition worth preserving.
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According to a newly published report in the Journal of Adolescence, American teenagers who have dinner with their families most nights were less likely to engage in a wide range of problem behaviors, including substance abuse for girls; binge drinking, physical fights, property destruction and stealing for boys; and running away for both genders. Among teens who smoke marijuana, those who engage in regular family meals do so less frequently.

“These findings indicate that participating in family meals may have additional benefits to adolescents, even if there is good family connectedness and parental awareness,” reports study author Bisakha Sen of the University of Alabama’s Department of Healthcare Organization and Policy. “It may be that eating meals together provides a certain kind of emotional sustenance that other family activities or other forms of parent-child bonding cannot perfectly substitute for.”

Then again, there may be a more prosaic reason: “Family meals may also increase parental supervision time and hence reduce the time that could potentially either be spent in solitary experimentation with addictive substances, or with peers who are a bad influence on the adolescent.”

For her study, Sen used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a nationally representative sample of American adolescents. Participants, who were 14 years old or younger as of Dec. 31, 1996, were surveyed annually from 1997 to 2000.

They answered questions on a wide range of issues, including their family life, relationship with their parents and whether they engaged in problematic behaviors such as smoking or drug use.

About 30 percent of females and 35 percent of male adolescents reported eating dinner with their families every evening during a typical week. Not surprisingly, they reported fewer regular family dinners as they got older, but Sen did not find this gradual drop-off to be associated with problem behaviors. Rather, the behavioral differences were between those who ate family dinners five to seven days a week as compared with those who did so one or two days per week or not at all.

Confirming previous research, Sen found vigilance on the part of parents is associated with lower probabilities of problem behaviors. Youngsters who reported their families engage in fun activities together or participate in religious activities together during a typical week were also less likely to engage in self-destructive activities.

But even controlling for those factors, family dinner seems to have a unique benefit. It’s not clear why, but Sen points to previous research suggesting such meals provide a certain stability and order in a youngster’s life. At least in theory, they provide excellent opportunities for interaction and communication among family members.

A 2007 report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found 59 percent of teens report dining with their families at least five times per week. Sen would like policymakers to consider possible ways of increasing that percentage.

“It is important that health professionals and social workers interacting with adolescents and their families are cognizant of the benefits of family meals and impart those to their clients,” she concludes, “and that the society works towards fostering a climate where after-school activities for adolescents and overtime work for adults do not unduly hamper the ability of families to meet for meals.

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