Maybe you were one of the families who celebrated “Family Day” on Monday by eating dinner together (Dialog, Sept. 15). Although families have so many activities devoted to their children, parents feel like they are always having a family day.
My experience in the Office for Marriage and Family Life, however, has revealed that some families fall short in parental engagement. This may be due to circumstances out of our control. Other times, though, it can be about the capacity to set priorities properly.
For many children there are tons of activities: softball, volleyball, football, or dance. It may be difficult to admit, but activities don’t always equate to engagement with our children. We can shuffle our kids from one event to another, yet still not learn much about what they are thinking or feeling.
Parents can feel good about affording their children opportunities that they did not have when they were young. Nevertheless, hectic schedules can sometimes substitute for the deeper parental engagement that children need. At times, activities may even obstruct our ability to know our kids better, to understand their hopes, gauge their fears and acknowledge their dreams. Research strongly suggests that the more parents are engaged in their children’s lives the more likely they will be raised to be healthy and drug free.
Every year, Family Day promotes the parental engagement fostered during frequent family dinners as an effective and simple way to help prevent substance abuse in children. Family Day was launched by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University and is celebrated annually on the fourth Monday of September as a reminder to parents about the importance of family dinners.
CASA has consistently found that children who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week) are less likely to drink alcohol, use marijuana or tobacco. From another perspective, compared to teens who have frequent family dinners, CASA found that those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are nearly twice as likely to use alcohol, twice as likely to use tobacco and nearly one and a half times likelier to use marijuana.
Very simply, family dinners make a difference. Significantly, it isn’t necessarily the food on the table that is most essential, but the conversations around it. Nearly three quarters of teens think that eating dinner together with their parents is important and those who have fewer than five nights a week wish they could eat with their parents more often.
We need to be realistic that some families may find it impossible to have frequent dinners. Why? Can anything be done about it? Even if there is little parents can do, there is no need to despair.
The critical dynamic is that parents engage with their children. Dinner is not the only time. There are other opportunities to talk: driving to and from school, driving between the activities, weekends. No matter where conversations take place, it’s important for parents to make it a regular practice to talk to their teens about what is happening in their lives. Not only can it help prevent substance abuse, it can help children’s academic performance as well.
This year, let’s all try to eat dinner as a family more often. Don’t wait for the next national observance. Make it family day more local and more often.
Michael Stankewicz is director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life.