Call the teens, it's dinnertime

Family meals have measurable benefits

It's 6 o'clock," Mom shouts. Time to wash your hands and get ready for ... soccer practice. Or piano lessons. Or gymnastics.

That's the evening norm in many American households today, where parents are more likely to shuffle their kids into a seat in the minivan than to the dinner table.

Thirty percent fewer families come together for dinner today than did 20 years ago, and fewer than 15 percent of today's American families eat supper regularly (five to seven times per week).

It's no wonder; families are tugged in dozens of directions these days. Even the most conscientious parents sometimes load kids into the car during dinner hour with a juice box and pizza slice in hand - or allow their teens to skip supper night after night.

But a recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) might make parents think twice.

According to the survey (www.casacolumbia.org), teenagers are particularly vulnerable to skipped suppers. CASA found, for example, that teens from families who eat dinner together were less likely to use illegal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes than teenagers who rarely eat dinner with parents.

"It's a tragedy," says Joseph Califano Jr., chairman and president of CASA, "that family dinners decline during the teen years - just when kids need them most."

When talking about substance abuse, Mr. Califano doesn't fool around. The former US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, calls it "the No. 1 disease in this country and the No. 1 reason for the breakup of families."

Califano has even gone so far as to initiate a national event to publicize the link between substance abuse and family suppers: Family Day - A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children, on the fourth Monday in September each year. This year, Family Day falls on Sept. 22. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated on which Monday in September Family Day falls each year.]

Of course, Califano hopes families will do more than share a pot of spaghetti once a year. But by making a fuss over a specific date, and with President Bush and celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis plugging his event, he wants to clue in parents to their ability to make a difference.

"Parent power is the most effec- tive way to deal with this," he says. "If parents are engaged with their kids, it can have tremendous impact."

While no one wants to quibble with the importance of family dinners, some feel they aren't always the best venue - or the only one - for parents to engage with their kids. Parents might be too busy policing manners, playing referee amid interruptions, or sopping up spilled juice.

Or they may be too preoccupied with quizzing their kids on world history so they can eventually get into Harvard, says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, child psychiatrist and author of "The Overscheduled Child."

"It's not a matter of family dinners," he says. "It's real intimate family time. In America, we always seem to emphasize the act more than the meaning.... If you really listen and talk to your kids with the cellphone and pager off, this is what matters most."

Rosenfeld's most cherished childhood memories are of fishing with his father.

"It didn't matter if we caught anything or not," he says, "just the fact that he took the time to be with me and talk with me helped me to feel important and lovable."

But Rosenfeld is also quick to point out that our society is typically too child-centered. Amid the flurry of trips to the soccer field, to music lessons, and Russian classes, parents forget to have a life of their own, he says.

"Kids learn to be adults by watching their parents," he explains. "We give them so little opportunity to do this. Being a good parent involves a lot of self-sacrifice, but it doesn't mean entire self-denial. Sometimes Mom might have to skip dinner and go to the gym - and that's OK."

Rosenfeld and his wife, a full-time pediatrician, and their three children, ages 16, 13, and 10, often share a laugh-packed evening of Monopoly or poker. If either parent has to work late, this activity might make up for not being together at dinner. "We just can't eat together every night," he says. "We do what we can."

Family nights in the Rosenfeld home have become such a hit that he is trying to publicize the concept of a National Family Night, when parents and kids drop everything to just hang out together. Making this time a priority, he says, goes a long way toward making kids feel valued as individuals, and therefore less tempted to look elsewhere for self-worth.

"In my experience," he says, "kids who are close to their families and who feel loved ... are less likely to try to escape reality into drug- induced daydreams.

"We are all rather simple creatures who fundamentally want the same thing. As [singer] Billy Joel says, 'No need for clever conversation, I love you just the way you are.' "

Make eating together more fun!

1. Try 'conversation-in-a-jar' with a pot full of strips of paper marked with questions such as "The strangest thing that happened to me today was..." or "The best book I've read recently is..."

2. Throw a 'family dinner party' and ask everyone to dress up and ring the doorbell as though they are guests.

3. Gather on the floor for a utensil-free picnic with a basket full of finger foods.

4. Try a 'spotlight dinner,' where one person is the (surprise) center of attention for the evening.

Source: 'The Book of New Family Traditions,' by Meg Cox

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