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Do Family Dinners Really Help Your Kids?

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Sit-down family dinners weren't a regular feature in our house. We chowed down in front of the tube as often as not.

Occasionally dad dragged everyone to the table, and oh the conversations we had -- the problems facing the world, the challenges in our own lives, the merits of dad's cooking. We can't recall the plot of a single sitcom watched while eating dinner, but we remember the topic of most family dinner discussions.

This month Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Saskatchewan celebrate Family Day. Among the many "tips" tossed about to acknowledge this day, sitting down to a family meal is near the top of the list. It has achieved reverential status in North American culture. Myriad studies purport incredible benefits, beyond just better table manners, such as better academic success and less chance of delinquency in children and teens.

But is the family dinner really all it's cracked up to be -- the cure for all social ills?

The academic research on the virtues of family meals is quite extensive. The Columbia University Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) in New York, for example, made the case in 2012 that regular family dinners led to decreased risk of teen substance abuse. Through a survey of 1,000 teens in the United States, the researchers found that teens who sat down for a dinner with their parents at least five times a week were more likely to have a strong relationship with their parents than those who ate together less than two times a week. And teens that have a strong relationship with their parents were significantly less likely to smoke or use drugs.

Perhaps not surprisingly, food companies are behind a number of the studies on the benefits of family dinners. In 2010, pasta maker Barilla sponsored a survey of 2,000 families. The study discovered that children from families that sat down for regular family meals were more physically active, more likely to choose healthy foods over junk, and got better grades in school. Those children were also far more likely to describe themselves as respectful, happy and confident.

Of course, any good scientist warns us not to mistake correlation for cause. Do regular family meals really make for happier families and well-adjusted kids, or is it simply that happy families with well-adjusted kids are more likely to have regular family meals? That's the question sociology researchers Anne Meier and Kelly Musick set out to answer.

In their paper, published in 2012 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marriage and Family, Meier and Musick found that, at first glance, teenagers in families that ate together often were less likely to experience depression, abuse drugs and alcohol, or engage in delinquent behaviour. Upon closer examination, the researchers also noticed families that frequently eat together were more likely to come from higher income groups. And parents in those families also spent time with their children in other ways -- helping with homework, or participating in extracurricular activities. The presence of these other contributing factors diminishes the credit dinner can claim for positive behaviour.

Meier and Musick then followed a group of teens for a year to see if changing the frequency of family dinners caused changes in behaviour. Although rates of teen depression dropped with more frequent family dinners, rates of delinquency and alcohol or drug use did not change.

Meier and Musick nevertheless concluded that regular family dinners still have benefits in raising physically and emotionally healthy children and teens. In a New York Times op-ed they identified the critical requirement: ". . .the effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives."

We know from experience, busy families have a difficult time carving out space for a family meal. Shelley London, one of the founders of the U.S.-based organization The Family Dinner Project, said don't stress if you can't make family dinners work as often as you'd like. "Don't worry about being perfect. It's not about perfection. Figure out what's right for you," she said.

Their web site --thefamilydinnerproject.org -- is a great resource with recipes, hundreds of age-appropriate conversation starters, tips and tricks for making dinner fit in a busy schedule, making it fun, and getting your whole family on board.

The family dinner may not be the legendary cure-all for family problems. But the benefits of taking time to connect with your family still hold true and dinner is an ideal time. It's not just about eating together, it's what is said while you're passing the potatoes.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.