Strengthening family ties | July 11, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 11, 2007

Strengthening family ties

Eating meals together a key to reducing likelihood of drug use, study says

by Susan Hong

Laurie Hunter, her husband and her 15-year-old son, Philip MacQuitty, eat dinner together about five times a week. But MacQuitty, a sophomore at Palo Alto High School, wishes family dinners were, well, more interesting.

If only the family could break the monotony of eating at the dinner table, he said.

"I kinda want to go out," MacQuitty said. "We could go out for dinner to restaurants maybe once a week, or something like that. Maybe we could eat at something other than in the same place, like outside in the tea room.

"I don't think (family dinners) need to be every day. Five times a week is good enough," added the teen, who is hoping for a little more free time and space.

MacQuitty also envisions eating with his friends.

"I think that'd be fun, other than eating with my parents," he said.

Hunter grew up in a home where she had daily dinners with her family.

"It's important to our family," Hunter tells her son. "I don't think it's that much to ask, really."

As teens get older, they are less likely to have dinner with their families, according to a study published by the National Center on Substance Abuse at Columbia University. There is a nearly 30-percent decline in the frequency of family dinners between the ages of 12 and 17, the report said.

Teens who have family dinners only once or twice a week are three times more at risk of trying marijuana than the average teen, researchers said. These teens are also more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol.

In contrast, youth who eat with their families five to seven times a week are at half the risk for substance abuse, the report said. These teens show lower levels of tension and stress, are less bored and perform better in school. They are also "likelier to say their parents are very or fairly proud of them and that they can go to one or both parents with a serious problem," the study said.

MacQuitty agrees his family dinners, which last 30 to 40 minutes, facilitate communication.

"I think it's important to me because they need to know what I'm doing in school and everyday life. It's a time where you talk about things," he said.

He and his parents talk about his track meets and events at work. His mother boasts that he holds the Central Coast Section freshman record for the 3,200 in track and field.

Quality conversation, during which teens feel they are heard, is important in developing strong relationships with teens, according to Dr. Kyle Hinman, a child psychiatrist at Stanford University.

"Dinner can be a convenient time to have that kind of non-judgmental conversation," he said. "When we're eating, usually part of your time the focus is on the food. Hopefully you're chewing and listening because you're eating."

The most important thing is to make sure parents and teens are not just telling each other what to do and what they want from each other.

"Even if you disagree with your teenager, they will tend to appreciate just being heard, just being understood," Hinman said.

Matthew Severson, a recent Paly graduate, believes in the benefits of frequent family dinners, which he says have brought him close to his parents.

After his father retired last summer, Severson and his family began having dinners together nearly every day.

"Definitely over this past year we've connected a lot and talked about our lives, and I've learned stuff about their lives," said Severson, who is planning to go to Brown University. "It's nice."

As an only child, receiving attention from his parents is not a problem.

"I enjoy being there with my parents," he said. "My parents and I are very close. We talk about just about everything. They are the people that I talk to the most in my life."

Denise Clark Pope, lecturer and director of the SOS: Stressed Out Students Project at Stanford University School of Education, confirms eating with each other and talking help boost teen health.

"It's basically one of the single best predictors of adolescent health, both mental health, physical health, sense of connectedness and self esteem," she said.

Breakfasts and lunches eaten together also work to build ties.

Especially in a community like Palo Alto where both parents and children lead active lives, scheduling in a joint meal time is a must, she said.

"'This is an important piece of being in our family, and we expect you to attend this meal,'" Pope tells parents to say to their teens, when the kids would rather eat elsewhere.

"It's the checking in," she said. "That's why the frequency of five times a week. It's hard to let a kid slip through the cracks when you're checking in with them frequently."

When after-school schedules run into dinner times, families should schedule a later meal time together, she said.

Pope advocates 20 to 25 minutes of sustained time together so parents and children can talk. Family members can talk about the highlights of their day, what happened at school, interesting things from work, she said.

"The most important thing is that everybody feels heard," she said.

No time for cooking? Pizza for dinner is good, according to Pope.

"It doesn't have to be a cooked gourmet (meal)," she said. Dining out counts, too.

The good news is that the number of teens having dinners five times or more per week with their families has increased from 47 to 58 percent from 1998 to 2005, the Columbia report stated.

Most teens want to have dinner with their families, the report found. But late work hours, after-school activities and long commutes often prevent families from getting together.

Chasing down her 17 year old has been difficult, parent Preeva Trameil said. She has family dinners two to three times a week -- more if she counts dinners out, she said.

Her older son, who graduated from Paly, used to participate in theater and would miss out on family dinners, she said.

"They would have rehearsals starting at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and go on until 10 or 11 at night," she said. Sometimes rehearsals would run late three to seven days a week, which cut into family dinner times, she said.

"These kids get very involved in their extracurriculars," she said.

But Trameil believes in the importance of having dinners together with her children.

"It's very satisfying," she said. "The younger one is very involved in robotics, and he gets to talk to my husband about things I absolutely do not understand," she said. "But it makes me feel good to hear him talk.

"I like to know what they've been doing. I can't control them, but I'd like a recap," she said.

Despite the report's recommendations, family dinners are no guarantee that teens won't experiment with drugs.

One youth interviewed by the Weekly, who did not want to be named, said he eats with his family and yet also has used drugs, which is not uncommon among his peer group. However, he noted that his drug activity peaked sophomore year in high school, when he had dinner more often with only one parent.

High stress and frequent boredom are often reasons why a teenager will smoke, get drunk and use illegal drugs, the report said.

Pope acknowledges that some families are not as comfortable having conversations during dinner. For them, she recommends starting by talking about lighter topics, such as movies or music. Then move on to school activities.

Given the importance of frequent family dinners and the impact parental engagement has in preventing teen substance abuse, families should make a concerted effort to overcome barriers to frequent family dining, researchers at Columbia said.

Those families already engaged in the habit may still have to navigate the waters of their teens' growing independence.

"I can understand what he's saying," Hunter said of her son's desire for family dinners to be casual and less frequent so he can do his own thing.

It's not something she's had to fight hard about, though.

"It's kind of like a family value," she said.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 29, 2007 at 7:19 pm

This is something I have tried to practice ever since I had kids. When my kids were still fairly young, it was pretty easy. As they got older and busier, it became much harder. Now that summer is here I am really trying to get back into the habit (this article fired me up) and I do and have recommended the practice to others over the years.

I will make a couple of comments of my own. Sports in particular makes this habit difficult. When one child is involved in sport and gets home late because of a practice and another is doing a different activity and has to leave the house before dinnertime, family time goes by the board. It is therefore still important to do it when you can, maybe at weekends or just one weeknight a week. But keep the practice up. Use this time to talk about family stuff that needs to be said, planning family events or passing on family news.

It still works in my family but it is much more of an effort than it used to be. Good luck.

Posted by Al, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 29, 2007 at 10:05 pm

I'm an old guy with grandkids. When I was a kid, we had dinner every night at the family table. It was boring. Yes, we talked, but it was a fake talk. My mother thought she was doing the right thing. My father went along for the ride, just to keep Mom happy.

When I raised my kids, I did not want family dinner time. My wife and I decided that food and conncection are not, necessarily, the same thing. We talked with our kids, as the need and opportunity presented itself. Food was a separate issue, delivered as needed, except on special holidays, like Thanksgiving.

Our kids learned to cook for themselves, and they are all very good cooks. Sometimes, we would cook a gourmet dinner together, each bringing his/her own recipe. In general though, we did not focus on food and family table.

We are close with our kids, but not too close. They are independent, and out of the house at age 18, no exceptions. When we do get together with our kids and grandkids, it is fun to see who can cook up the best gourmet dish. We usually finish the evening with watermelon, so it is not a big deal...just a lot of fun.

I would say, having experienced both ends of the family table experience, don't push it.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Verde School
on Jul 30, 2007 at 10:39 am


Thanks for your thoughts. I am pleased that your family does get on so well. Unfortunately, things have changed quite a bit since even your kids were home. Many of the kids nowadays live on food that is not home cooked. The most they know about cooking is how to heat up pizza or mac and cheese. The only gourmet meals they know come from the local chinese (or ?) takeout. Families only get together and talk when there is a problem. Table manners are non-existent and meal times are vague to say the least.

I try to get my family to eat together as it is often the only way they talk to each other. I can find time to talk to each of my kids, but unless they are sitting at the table talking to each other, they never have the opportunity to compare their thoughts about the same teachers, the comparisons about various school lunch items, etc.

It is not for parent/child interaction, but often for sibling interaction that makes this necessary. Kids today spend too much time in front of a computer or with music in their headphones, for them to interact. If a family can do the same thing in a different way then I am all for it. Eating together seems like a good way to me.

On a similar note, I am disgusted by the amount of food crumbs and stains I find in library books I borrow. It says that people are eating when reading and that is fine if they own the book, but pretty bad when they are turning these stained books back to the libraries.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 30, 2007 at 4:30 pm

Wow, I guess I'm on the old-fashioned side on this one. Dinner time's etiquette time. It's prime time for civilizing the little critters.