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The family dinner: Are there no limits to its power?

February 15, 2010 |  5:47 pm

Meatloaf Tami Dennis recently blogged on the issue of correlation and causation and how often the two are confused in stories about scientific studies (and sometimes in the study papers themselves).

I would like to nominate my own favorite: the all-powerful Family Dinner.

Reading about the family dinner -- this article, for example -- you might wonder what the family dinner can't do.  According to various accounts, that dinner will get you ... kids who are less likely to smoke and drink. Kids less apt to partake of pot or have sex. Girls less likely to have boyfriends more than two years older than they are. Kids who are less likely to be depressed and who get better grades in school. Fewer eating disorders. Less suicidal ideation. In younger kids, better vocabularies. Oh, and as reported last week, less obesity. All this by sitting down and eating dinner with the rug rats a few times a week.

I'd hazard that the family dinner holds no special magic but is just a marker for a family that is, on average, more functional and engaged with the children. Such families, when considered as a group, are probably more likely to do lots of things that matter more -- provide a structured home life, pay attention to how kids are doing in school, whether they've done their homework, whether they are running into emotional difficulties, what their diet is like and where they are at midnight on a school night. The parents may be more likely to get along with each other and have good relationships with their offspring.The parents may be less likely to be run off their feet with work demands.

The best candidate for a cause-and-effect link might seem to be in combating obesity. We all know that restaurant meals can be astoundingly high in calories, and a family meal can serve as a setting to teach kids to eat a little bit better, experiment with foods and consume fewer calories at a sitting. Still, it'll only do that if you cook meals that aren't junk. Tater Tots and fried chicken strips may not hold the same power. And it's only one meal in the day.

So yes, the family dinner is a nice thing (though a former acquaintance whose father had everyone bone up on a topic for intellectual discussion each dinner might dissent from this view). But isn't imbuing it with so much power like trying save a troubled marriage by moving to Massachusetts because the divorce rate is low there?

I'm not the only one puzzled by breathless "family dinner" reporting. Here's a blog I found on the same topic.

-- Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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