THE dinner table was once regarded as the magnet to which all the members of an American family were drawn every night at 6 o'clock, however far they might be flung from home-sweet-home during the day. Then came fast food restaurants, microwave ovens, and the age of eat-and-run, and presumably dining room tables became obsolete collectors of dust while culture-watchers in the United States read one more sign of the decline and fall of the nuclear family.
But these dinnertime doom-sayers are wrong, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Eighty percent of parents with children under 18 claim that on a typical weeknight, most members of their family eat together.
Dinners may not always be the strictly conversational gatherings of earlier generations - 42 percent say they watch television while they eat - but the occasion is so important that many people go to extraordinary lengths to coordinate mealtime schedules.
The dinner hour becomes a form of domestic glue, binding families together.
The survey results are consistent with the findings of two other polls earlier this year, one conducted by the Los Angeles Times, the other by a New York advertising agency, DDB Needham. Taken together, the polls serve as reassuring reminders that the American family possesses strength and stability sometimes forgotten in an age of single parents and dual-career couples. Media coverage of ``dysfunctional'' families and TV docudramas on the social-ill-of-the-week can serve useful purposes, but they also tend to create a distorted and disconcerting picture of changing family norms.
What doesn't change, apparently, is the nearly universal yearning to have one's feet planted firmly under the family dinner table, and even - with apologies to Miss Manners - one's elbows resting on it.