My pal Zig sent me the abstract of a report today called The Importance of Family Dinners IV (you can download the entire report here).
The report tells us what most of us intuitively know: family dinners are a good thing. More specifically,
"frequent family dining is associated with lower rates of teen smoking, drinking, illegal drug use and prescription drug use."
After reading the report, I found myself doing some rapid, panic-tinged calculations. How often have we been eating together? I figured that we eat together on average four to five nights a week and was reassured. That said, our family dinners are often quick affairs during which food is wolfed down in a mini homework break. We often sit around the fire and not at the table. The food either take-out or frozen pizza at least once a week and many more times it is, shall we say, uninspired.
I looked through the report for their definition of "family dinner" and couldn’t find it. Do our family dinners, I wonder, count?
And what about the many awkward and silent family dinners I attended as a child in other people’s houses? The ones like this?
And then I read the following, which is not in the report, but in the accompanying statement to the report: "there are no silver bullets; unfortunately, the tragedy of
a child’s substance abuse can strike any family. But one factor that
does more to reduce teens’ substance abuse risk than almost any other
is parental engagement, and one of the simplest and most effective ways
for parents to be engaged in teens’ lives is by having frequent family
"Ah, HA" I thought to myself, with that lovely sense of satisfaction that comes from having ones own beliefs confirmed by an expert. In the end, the dinner is not what matters. What matters is the parental engagement. This makes sense. This I can try to do.
Note to self: try not to be like the Annette Benning character in American Beauty, who emphatically tells her her daughter. "I’m so proud of you!" only to follow up with "You didn’t screw up once!"
I’ve got nothing against family dinners but I hate it when journalists pick up studies like this and write articles like this and this and focus on the dinner, on the thing that parents are supposed to do.
And so parents who cannot, for whatever good reasons they have, make family dinner a priority feel that they are being bad parents. This makes me crazy. A family dinner spent fighting or in awkward silence is not going to protect against anything bad or help bring about anything good. The dinner is not, after all, the point.
The point is finding a way to be in an ongoing relationship with your child. The only thing that matters is the quality of the relatedness you have – not what you do but what the relationship is.
Dinner, if it is good and someone else cleans up, is just, well, gravy.