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Family dining useful but hard to arrange

Judith Kleinfeld

Our family dinners centered on the game "Debating Daddy."

To start the game, one of our children would voice an outrageous political opinion, calculated to drive his father wild. Dad would counter his move with a political argument based on such irrelevancies as logic and facts. Our children would try to demolish their father's arguments.

The game was on -- arguments flew across the table, voices got louder, emotions got hot and dinner got cold. The loser was the one who gave up and started to eat.

I never bothered to play. I like my dinner hot and my arguments cool. But once the battle was over, I did ask the children about their day. This was my Early Warning System to catch problems before they erupted. I could tell by their complaints what was going on.

Researchers have fingered the family dinner as a powerful force. Children who eat with their parents have:

• Higher grades in school

• Lower rates of drinking, smoking, and drug use

• Fewer eating disorders

• Lower rates of depression and fewer suicidal thoughts

• Higher self-esteem

• More sociability

David Dickinson, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, for example, studied why some children read early while others lag behind. He expected family routines like reading to children to have the most impact.

To his amazement, the family dinner turned out to be more powerful than anything else.

When parents read stories, their children did not have to say much, and children's stories used simple words and sentences. When parents talked at the dinner table about the news or what was happening in the family or their problems at work, they used complicated sentences and words the children didn't understand. They would explain words, like telling their children that a reptile was a kind of snake.

To have these dinner conversations doesn't mean that Mom or Dad needs to cook. You can eat out. You can bring home pizza or Chinese takeout. As George Bush joked, "I did eat with my family ... so long as my mother wasn't cooking."

Getting the family together for dinner is not easy.

When university meetings dragged on into the dinner hour, I shocked my colleagues by saying that I had to get home for dinner. They would tease me, "Judy has to get home for 'din-din.' "

The children also resisted my demands that they come home for dinner. Sometimes they had a good reason. Schools do not hesitate to schedule sports practice, rehearsals and meetings during what used to be dinnertime.

Other times they just wanted to hang out with their friends. But I had a rule. You are expected to come home for dinner unless you have a genuine conflict, like basketball practice. My children grumbled, but they came home.

New research reveals that the family dinner has benefits for parents too.

Jenet Jacob and her colleagues studied 1,580 employees at IBM.

Parents who felt that work interfered with family dinner had poorer relationships with their spouses and their children. They also didn't like their workplace.

Now the media is challenging the benefits of the family dinner. National Public Radio just did a segment arguing that eating together wasn't the cause of children's better adjustment and school success. Families who were stronger in the first place were more apt to eat together. What's behind their strange criticism of the family dinner?

Sue Shellenbarger, who writes the popular column on work and family in the Wall Street Journal, gives us a clue. "Married women spend more than three times more hours each week cooking meals and cleaning up afterward, compared with married men," she huffs.

Her readers disagreed. Family dinners, they insisted, made them better employees and taught children skills like table manners.

My oldest son particularly battled me over family dinners, so I asked him, now that he's grown up, what he planned to do. "I liked the rule about coming home for dinner," he confessed.

But, then, he usually won the "Debate with Daddy."

Judith Kleinfeld is director of northern studies and a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.