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Family Dinners Provide Food for Thought as Well

By Abraham T. McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1996

Timme Davis hasn't had a day off in two weeks. He's tired. He'd like to go to bed. But it's 7 p.m. - and time for the focus of his family's day: dinner.

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As he joins his wife and three boys for meatloaf in their Berkeley, Calif., duplex, talk turns to the boys' grades and baseball games. ''It's the only time we tell each other what's going on,'' Mr. Davis says.

Many assume the dinner hour has been elbowed aside by the demands on families who, like the Davises, deal with two careers, longer working hours, and children with numerous extracurricular activities.

But the numbers tell a different story: A recent Roper Center survey found that 86 percent of families are juggling commitments and cooking creatively in order to eat together ''often'' or ''fairly often.'' And that's a good thing: Aside from promoting family unity, dinner conversation is the best predictor of children's success in learning to read, say Harvard University researchers.

''It's critical for families to have that quality time,'' says Ellen Galinski, co-president of the New York-based Work and Families Institute. ''The actual amount of time is less important than that it happens at all.''

Her organization found that 66 percent of families with children 18 or younger eat together at least five times a week. And 23 percent share the dinner hour between two and four times a week.

Claire Regan, a Boston resident who has two young daughters, has little doubt that her family's nightly dinners benefit her children, including academically. Their dinner conversations span the spectrum, from how candles burn to the childrens' artistic endeavors. Given their frequent discussions, Ms. Regan says, ''They'll probably get 200s on the math part of their SATs, but I expect them to ace the verbal section.''

Indeed, Harvard's study, an ongoing, eight-year research effort, says that the less-harried exchanges at mealtime help children learn to define more difficult words - from ''oxygen'' to ''roller coaster'' - in the context of regular conversation.

They learn too from what the Harvard researchers call ''non-immediate'' talk. It goes beyond 'pass the salt' and 'I don't like the broccoli,' to include discussions of the day's events, plans for tomorrow, or even more abstract topics.

A key finding of the study - which is based on 65 low-income, less-educated families - is that children expand verbal and reading ability regardless of their parents' educational and income levels.

''However poor or poorly educated the parents are, they know a lot that kids can benefit from,'' says Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard. ''They don't have to buy the children computers or take them to library,'' she says, ''It's what's in the parents' heads'' that kids learn the most from.

Aside from its educational benefits, many families value the dinner hour as simply a time for recementing ties. Lynn Fredericks, who lives in New York City with her two sons, 10-year-old Alexander and four-year-old Stephan, found the ritual particularly helpful after her recent divorce.