Top | Unexplained Bacon

Quality time

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Surely you've seen the headlines:
"Family Meals Help Teens Avoid Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs"
"Family meals may cut teens' drug use"
"The family that dines together, fends off the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse better"

The stories tend to crop up every September because of Family Day, a holiday invented by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. CASA is responsible for the report "The Importance of Family Dinners," which it revises to great fanfare every few years.

[%image momandkid float=left width=300 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/iofoto" caption="Can regular family dinner keep kids off drugs?"]

For a while, these headlines made me feel smug. I don't have a teen, but I have a three-year-old, and my wife and daughter and I sit down for a home-cooked dinner seven times in a typical week.

After the smugness wore off, I got annoyed. I felt the way I imagine wine aficionados felt when the press began reporting that red wine is good for you: they are trying to take something I enjoy for its own sake and turn it into medicine. "Try these family dinners — they'll put hair on your chest and keep your kids off the hard stuff," they seemed to be saying.

So I turned skeptical.

The most recent CASA report, “The Importance of Family Dinners III,” was released in September 2006. I read it and came away wondering: Was anything I'd heard reported about this study really true?

For the study, CASA interviewed teens aged 12 to 17 and their parents, and produced a substance-abuse-risk score for the teens. Answering yes to questions like "Have you tried marijuana?" raised a teen’s substance-abuse score. Then CASA correlated the substance-abuse score with how often the teens were home for dinner. Here’s the key result:

|Dinners per week|Substance-abuse risk|
|0-2|1.38|
|5-7|0.82|

To give an idea of what these numbers mean: The teens who dined at home only 0 to 2 times per week were twice as likely to have tried pot and more than twice as likely to have tried cigarettes. Moms, start your Crock-Pots; this case is closed. Right?

Let's turn back to my own family. My daughter is three. We eat dinner together every night. I can say with reasonable confidence that she has never used drugs and doesn't hang out with those who do, although some of her friends eat a lot of Annie's cheesy bunnies.

The CASA study didn't include 3-year-olds, of course. But it did include 12-year-olds, and the table compares 12-year-olds against 17-year-olds.

Presumably I don't need to explain the various ways in which 17-year-olds are different from 12-year-olds, or convince you that 17-year-olds are both less likely to be at home at dinnertime and more likely to try drugs. Any time you're reporting data on a variable that is known to be strongly influenced by age (cancer, for example), the right thing to do is report age-adjusted statistics.

In case this sounds like blather, here's another way to think about why age-adjusting is important. Imagine a study that compared cancer rates at a nursing home and a preschool, found that the nursing home had 100 times the cancer rate, and concluded that something must be wrong with the nursing home. 

Or try this: Teens who eat at home more often are shorter, and teens who eat at home less often are taller. But that doesn't mean you can get Junior onto the basketball team by keeping him away from the family table.

Nothing in CASA's report is presented as being age-adjusted. On the last page of the report is a statement that CASA used a statistical technique (analysis of variance, aka ANOVA) to verify that the reported differences still existed after adjusting for age. Great. But a representative of the firm that conducted the study for CASA admitted to the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that the difference in substance-abuse risk is more strongly correlated with age than with family-dinner attendance. 

(I did not catch this statistical gaffe myself. I read about it in Cameron Stracher's book, [%bookLink code=1400065372 "Dinner with Dad"]. In the book, Stracher, an overworked law professor, promises to be home for dinner five nights a week and finds, at least at first, that this leads to more family friction.)

So yes, there is indeed a gap in drug-abuse risk between the frequent home diners and the infrequent home diners — it's just much smaller than CASA makes it out to be. Still, doesn't this gap somehow prove that family dinners help prevent drug abuse, even if the effect isn't as big as initially reported?

No. Which of these hypotheses sounds more likely to you?

 Family dinners (or family time in general) exert a protective effect that keeps kids off drugs and away from bad influences.
 Stoners don't want to hang out with their parents.

Probably both are true, right? Elizabeth Planet, CASA's director of special projects, agrees.

"The statistical relationships we observe do not demonstrate causality — indeed, there is probably some back and forth in the dinners/family relationships/teen attitudes/teen behavior," Planet wrote to me in an email. "Our findings are consistent with other social-science research regarding the protective benefits of parental engagement and strong family relationships."

That is not how the report is sold in September.

"If I could wave a magic wand to make a dent in the substance-abuse problem, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week. There is no more important thing a parent can do," states CASA president Joseph Califano in the introduction to the report. (If he had an actual magic wand, wouldn't he use it to just get rid of drugs altogether? Just wondering.)

h3. Enter the corporate dragon

A cottage industry has grown up around promoting the family dinner. Among the presentations given at the "Family Meals: Setting the Table" conference held last year in Philadelphia was one called “State of Dinner.” The presentation defined dinner as "Meal eaten in the evening, preferably cooked with Campbell's products."

Other sponsors of the event were Safeway, Coca-Cola, Kroger, and Del Monte. Another talk was entitled "Family Meals: Good for the Food Industry, Good for the Family, Good for Nutrition."

CASA's report is sponsored by the Nick at Nite and TV Land cable channels. In the introduction, Califano thanks Nick at Nite/TV Land president Larry W. Jones, who "understands that a revival of the family dinner in America will do more to curb kids from smoking, drinking, and using drugs than any law or public health campaign."

Presumably Jones also understands that in a 2000 study of family meals published in the Journal of Nutrition Education, 52.8 percent of teens reported frequent television viewing during meals.

h3. The feminine mystique

Could family dinners actually be bad for teens?

For teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the answer may be yes. As Dr. Lily Trokenberg Hechtman writes in her book, [%bookLink code=0801861411 "ADHD in Adulthood "]:

bq. The idea that all families should have a peaceful family dinner is an expectation that families with ADHD often come to with heartbreak. . . . \[A\] family dinner requires preparation. This often means leaving children unsupervised in the early evening when they are unmedicated.

Of course, Hechtman isn't saying that families with ADHD should shun cooking. "Families with ADHD discover alternative patterns that can realistically work for them," she writes. "They may allow family members to eat in smaller groups that are less overwhelming."

But if your kids don't happen to suffer from ADHD, what's the harm of promoting family dinners, even if the promoters come armed with lousy statistics and cream of mushroom soup?

It's all about Mom.

Since 1998, 75 percent of family dinners in the U.S. have featured perfect attendance by all family members, according to the NPD Group's (a consumer-market research firm) annual “Food For Thought” survey; this rate has held steady since then. But the rate peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, and the one factor that explains this decline better than any other is women entering the workforce. As a 2003 study found:

bq. The mean frequency of family meals over the past week was highest among youths whose mothers were not employed and lowest among youths whose mothers worked full time.

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Changing tastes

Barbara Kingsolver finds another reason to love family dinners in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

"Consider a recent survey from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The NMSC profiled National Merit scholars from the past 20 years trying to find out what these stellar students had in common. They were surprised to find that, without exception, these kids came from families who ate together three or more nights a week."

So family dinners not only keep kids off drugs but also make them smarter? Bonus. Unfortunately, it's an urban legend, as Po Bronson reports on his blog:

"\[N\]o such research has ever been done. Not by NMSQ itself. Not by Columbia. Not by anyone. Got that? There is literally no research to support this. \[Elaine Detweiler, the director of public information for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is\] not saying the findings are inconclusive. She's saying that no one ever did that research. The report just does not exist. In fact, Detweiler asked a reporter, 'Let me know if you find the source of this myth.'"

]]

CASA found the same thing when it asked teens why family dinners aren't more frequent in their families. The most popular answer: One or both parents work late (26 percent).

The rate of moms working full- or part-time jumped from 52 percent in 1982 to 70 percent in 1996. (And mothers of teens are more likely to work than mothers of young children.) Family dinners, so closely correlated with whether Mom works, almost certainly declined during this period — but I'll admit I didn't find actual survey data on this.

What happened to rates of teen drug use? They also declined: The percent of high school seniors who reported having tried any illegal drug dropped from 64 percent to 51 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. So while women went to work in greater numbers, teen drug use declined. Presumably neither of these trends caused the other.

The "importance of family dinners" is symbolic. Some families can't make it to the table because of work, after-school activities, or psychological issues like ADHD. Some families don't want to come to the table because they have problems that are unlikely to be solved by asking, "What did you do at school today?" over pork chops.

As Po Bronson, author of [%bookLink code=1400062373 "Why Do I Love These People?"], writes on his blog, "What defines parental involvement isn't just a meal, but a litany of demographic, psychological, economic, social, and ethnic factors."

But let's say we want to fulfill CASA President Califano's wish for an America where every family sits down together five nights a week. Here's what would have to happen: Millions of parents, mostly women, would have to leave the work force or go from full- to part-time employment. These are the same women who now have to endure lectures implying that if they can't make it home for dinner on time, they don't love their children enough. As a letter-writer, Ari Gerstman, put it recently in the New York Times_:

bq. Why is the regularity of the home-cooked meal a thing of the past? Many would claim that, because both parents are working, no one has the time to spend over the stove, but my mother managed just fine while working 40 to 50 hours a week. Perhaps we've just gotten lazy.

I don't know if requiring five family dinners a week would make a dent in teen drug use. But it would push many families under the poverty line by forcing parents to do fewer hours of paid work. Some, because they work swing shifts or don't have an understanding boss, would have to quit their jobs altogether. Or I guess they could just work really hard, like Ari Gerstman's mom. I'm sure that would be good for familial relations.

Poverty is strongly correlated with drug abuse. Maybe more family dinners would cause more drug use. That would be wildly speculating. Wouldn't it? 

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.


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