Researchers have a simple recipe for raising substance-free children: frequent family dinners.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York City found that the more children eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.
"Frequent family dinners provide parents a perfect opportunity to connect with their children, to hear about concerns or issues when they arise, to send clear messages about expectations and rules," said Lauren R. Duran, director of communications for the center.
She invited families across the United States to participate on Monday, Sept. 24, in "Family Day — A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children." The national initiative is intended to remind parents that "what your kids really want at the dinner table is you."
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse started Family Day six years ago to emphasize the importance of parental engagement in children's lives and encourage parents to have frequent family dinner with their children as an effective way to prevent substance abuse.
According to researchers at the center, frequent family dinners are associated with lower teen substance abuse.
"Compared to teens who have five to seven family dinners in a typical week, teens who dine with their families fewer than three nights in a typical week are two times likelier to have tried marijuana, more than twice as likely to have tried cigarettes and one and a half times likelier to have tried alcohol," said Ms. Duran, citing the center's 2006 report, "The Importance of Family Dinners (part 3)."
The report also found that frequent family dinners are associated with higher academic performance.
"Teens who have dinner with their families five to seven times in a typical week are likelier to get mostly A's and B's in school compared to teens who dine with their families fewer than three times per week," she wrote in an e-mail to the Church News. "Academic performance is associated with substance abuse risk; teens who report receiving grades of C or lower are at twice the risk of substance abuse as those who report receiving all A's or A's and B's."
The reason family meal time makes a difference is simple, she added. "The communication that occurs over the course of a meal is critical in building a relationship between parents and their children and to understanding the world in which their teens live. If parents make it a point to spend time with their kids and to communicate with them early on, their kids will be more inclined to turn to them later on when they feel the pressure from their peers to smoke, drink or use drugs."
She said if schedules get too complicated for regular family dinners, parents should be sure to stay actively engaged in their children's lives. Breakfast, lunch and meals on the weekends count as long as the family is together and communicating, she added.
Ms. Duran listed several other steps parents can take to help prevent their children from abusing substances:
Set a good example.
Know your children's whereabouts, activities and friends.
Set fair rules and hold your children to them.
Maintain open lines of communication.
Surround your children with positive role models.
Learn the signs and symptoms of teen substance abuse and conditions that increase risk.
E. Jeffrey Hill, an associate professor in the BYU School of Family Life, said family meal time is a relaxed way for parents to inform themselves of their children's activities.
Dinner time has one thing going for it, he said — everyone will get hungry. "People are going to want to be there," Brother Hill said. Because everyone has to eat, it doesn't require "extra time, it just takes coordination."
For that reason, he said, family meal time should be a pleasant time. "Don't use meal time for conflict resolution or to bring up things that are negative," he said.
Family meal time is an opportunity to draw families together, he said. "I think the Church has a message of family togetherness. We come together as a family around the meal table. It is really where our religious faith is transmitted.... We can say what we believe. We have a captive audience."
Ms. Duran said getting parents to engage in their children's life is the focus of Family Day.
Started as a grassroots effort in 2001, Family Day has grown into an annual national celebration. Ms. Duran said scores of not-for-profit groups, community-based and religious organizations and corporations have embraced Family Day and are promoting it among their members, communities, congregations, customers and employees.
Family Day is recognized in various calendars and planners. U.S. President George W. Bush, 48 governors and more than 600 city and county executives issued Family Day proclamations last year.
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