by Melissa Skinner, M.A., LCPC
Having dinner together as a family is not as common as it was in the past, but is one of the best tips for engaging your apathetic teenager and encouraging them to learn important social skills. In today’s age of technology, our youth are relying heavily on their cellphones or tablets as a means to communicate and are losing their ability to develop and strengthen their social skills. If we want our children to grow up having empathy and knowing how to initiate and hold conversations, we need to provide the space for them to practice these skills and to interact with people instead of with screens. What better place then at the family dinner table?
Statistics show there are many benefits of families carving out time to share meals together each week. The US Department of Health & Human Services, found that children who do not eat dinner with their families, are 61% more likely to use alcohol, tobacco or drugs and by contrast, youth that do eat dinner with their families, are 20% less likely to drink, smoke or use illegal drugs. Additionally teens that share dinner time with their families, are less likely to have sex at young ages or get suspended from school. They are also at a lower risk for suicidal thoughts.
As we all know, getting everyone together at the same time to eat a meal can be a challenge. There are varying schedules and activities to consider, such as the numerous sports practices, clubs, work meetings etc. Keep in mind though, the goal does not have to be to eat dinner together every night of the week. Start small and shoot for one or two nights a week. Pick a night that everyone in the family can commit to and make this commitment non-negotiable. For instance, everyone is expected to be at the dinner table on Tuesday evenings at 7:00 pm. If you bring home Subway for dinner, that works. Don’t make this something that adds more stress to your lives, but rather something that everyone can enjoy and look forward to. This is a time to come together and to spend some quality time together, without any TV’s on or any screens or phones nearby.
The research shows that the more meals together, the better. One is better then none and three is better then two. If both parents live together and can be present for the dinner, that is ideal, however since we do not live in an ideal world, we do the best we can under the circumstances. The point here is to spend quality time together and to engage in a meaningful and fun way with your kids. You may want to come up with a few creative open ended questions beforehand, to get the conversation rolling. Some examples of these types of questions are “Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had and why?”, “What do you think is the coolest thing we’ve ever done together as a family ?”.
Eating together regularly, even one or two times a week, will help to build a stronger family identity. The routine will provide your children with a sense of security and stability which will last a lifetime. Most importantly, it’s time that you’ve all set aside to celebrate your family, to laugh, to have fun and to love.
For more information on the research associated with the benefits of family dinners, see the following studies and articles.
- The Importance of Family Dinners VI, a report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA*) at Columbia University
- Share the Table: The Importance of Dinnertime in America, a white paper study by Dr. William J. Doherty commissioned by Barilla
- Of Ketchup and Kin: Dinnertime Conversations as a Major Source of Family Knowledge, Family Adjustment, and Family Resilience, a working paper by Dr. Marshall P. Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush at Emory University