Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioural Outcomes

Further to this post about emerging evidence that family meals may not be the protective factor we had thought it was when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

Another research paper suggests we may need to be cautious in our assessment of eating together as a crucial element in protecting our children.

The researchers have looked at data provided by 21,400 children aged 5–15 and has controlled for a range of other factors to be able to judge whether frequently eating together as a family has a positive effect on academic and behavioural outcomes (including substance misuse).

They put a number of important caveats around what they find, they point out previous research has found a link, but come to the conclusion.

In sum, despite differences between our study and previous analyses, our results suggest that the findings of previous work regarding FMF [family meal frequency] and adolescent outcomes should be viewed with some caution.

via Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioral Outcomes – Miller – 2012 – Child Development – Wiley Online Library.

Be home in time for dinner?

Home Alone by Stéfan
Home Alone, a photo by Stéfan on Flickr.

We’ve often pointed to the evidence that having dinner together as a family appears to have a protective effect on young people when it comes to substance misuse. However, that’s now being challenged by researchers from the University of Minnesota who say that once you control for other factors dinner may not be all that important.

“Meals may afford a regular and positive context for parents to connect with children emotionally, to monitor their social and academic activities, and to convey values and expectations. This is what we suspect is driving any causal relationship between family dinners and child well being. But, family dinners also appear to be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities, and it’s unclear how well family dinners would work unbundled from the rest of that package.”

Does that mean we should alter our advice that eating regularly as a family is an important way of preventing drug misuse?  I don’t think so as it may well be that the rituals that the researchers talk about are in part developed around the family dinner table.

The importance of family dinners

We know that one of the most important influences on young people’s substance use and misuse are their parents. And one of the messages we have for parents is that frequent family dinners could be an important protective factor when it comes to substance misuse.

As we know its not the food that is the active ingredient in preventing substance misuse, its the opportunity to talk and engage with family members, to be interested in, and engaged with, the lives of our sons and daughters.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have an annual survey which provides some American data on this. They report that teenagers who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are:

  • Almost four times likelier to use tobacco;
  • More than twice as likely to use alcohol;
  • Two-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana; and
  • Almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future.

What we can’t tell is whether the same would be true in the UK, but it would be good to find out wouldn’t it?