In the Sunday Review section of the NY Times, there is an opinion piece about a study that questions whether family dinners are overrated. All previous studies show that kids in families that eat dinner together regularly are more socially and academically successful, and have fewer problems. These researchers then control for factors such as
the quality of family relationships, in activities with a parent (a tally of things like moviegoing and helping with schoolwork), [and] in parental monitoring (things like curfews and approving clothing)…
Guess what? When you control for factors like this and family resources (such as income), it cuts the correlation in half. The problem with this is that all these things (except for family income) are things that may themselves be a product (in part) of spending more time having dinners together. It’s like a study of whether sitting in a classroom every day makes students more successful, and then tossing out the data from students who pay attention, do their homework, and are respectful to others. Gee, it turns out that for students who are inattentive, don’t do homework and are disrespectful, sitting in a classroom every day doesn’t help them much at all. Of course, in the process of doing this sort of study you have tossed out the data about students who, as a result of sitting in the classroom every day, have learned how to become more attentive, do homework and be more respectful of others.
The authors conclude that simply having dinner together is not a panacea, and that you should find other ways to engage with your kids if you can’t do that. My reaction to that is, on the one hand, “well, duh.” It is the engagement and caring that matter, not simply spending time together. If family interactions are generally toxic, I could see that forcing more interactions around the dinner table could even be harmful.
So yeah, family dinners aren’t a magic fix, but they very much are a natural forum where kids can learn to pitch in (setting the table, cleaning up, etc.–the original “home work”), be more attentive and be more respectful to others. If you give that up, you have to work pretty hard to create a similar arena for regular, all-round engagement and development.