Mark Twain once said, “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The same can be said about the death of the family dinner. Whereas just a few years ago, media reports were lamenting that the American family was so busy that they didn’t have time to sit down together over a meal at the end of the day, more recent reports indicate that the family dinner is alive and well. A 2013 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service reports that about 88% of American families eat dinner together about 5 times a week. And this is good news, because there is a lot of evidence that eating a meal together has positive benefits for children. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse finds that families that eat dinner together have children and adolescents that are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including smoking, drugs and sex, and more likely to engage on prosocial behavior, including attending school and getting good grades.
At the Family Narratives Lab, we became interested in just what it is about eating dinner together that was so good for families and children. So my colleague, Marshall Duke, and I asked a sample of American families, varying in race, ethnicity and economic background, to simply record a couple of everyday dinner conversations. Families who participated had between one and 6 children, with most of them having 2 to 3. All families had at least one adolescent, and this was the child we were most interested in, because adolescence is when kids might start to engage in risky behavior. What happens at the dinner table that is so protective for adolescent development?
Our initial thinking was that the dinner table is the perfect time for a busy family to come back together at the end of the day, to tell each other stories of their daily experiences and to re-connect as an emotionally bonded family. So we looked through all of the dinner conversations and picked out every time the family engaged in telling a story (as opposed to talking about the food, or talking about more general knowledge about the world). Families tell a lot of stories! In a typical dinner conversation, stories come up once about every 5 minutes. As we suspected, about half of these stories were about one family member telling an exploit from their day, what are called “Today I….” stories – a child telling what happened at lunchtime with a best friend, or a parent talking about an incident at work. These stories were eagerly listened to, but mostly told by the family member who experienced the event.
What was most intriguing is how many stories families told about their own history. Many of these were experiences the family shared together – going to a movie, a picnic or a family vacation. When these stories came up in conversation, all family members became involved, each family member telling a bit of information and collaborating on the final version. These family stories were emotionally engaging; it was clear the family was having fun!
But here is the real surprise. In addition to recording the dinner time conversations, we also gathered lots of data on the adolescent of the family, including information about their social, emotional and academic performance. Adolescents from families that told more stories, both “Today I…” stories and family stories, showed higher well-being on all these measures. They had higher self-esteem, higher sense of social competence, higher academic competence, and showed few internalizing (anxiety, withdrawal, depression) and externalizing (aggression, substance abuse) behavior problems.