You Are Not A Bad Family If Dinnertime Doesn't Work For You

In a way, meals are a terrible time to attempt to foster whole-family connection, and it isn’t as essential as the culture wants you to think it is.

Good Enough Parent
The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.

Dear GEP,

Is family dinner really necessary? When softball season starts, all bets are off about dinner time. And I’m told team sports are important, especially for girls. Also, colleges want to see after-school activities on the resume. So do I make family dinner a priority, or after-school activities?! The activities take up every day! So yeah. Trying to prioritize dinner when it’s not even fun is really hard. How do we make it less... hard?

There is something inherently lovely about a shared meal, at least one where people are enjoying the food, connecting with one another, and mostly not losing their respective shits. I would imagine there are many people who have lots of wonderful associations with meals.

I don’t remember family meals growing up, though I know we had them. I do remember, after my parents split up, the more casual dinners I had with each of them. Eating a bowl of noodles on the couch while my dad did his taxes at a TV table and feigned incredulity at the plot lines of Dawson’s Creek despite clearly not wanting to miss a minute of Pacey’s affair with that hot teacher. Or sitting at the kitchen island in my mom’s apartment as she picked leftovers out of the pan when she came home from a 12-hour day of seeing back-to-back patients. There are many aspects of my childhood that my parents are horrified I have no memory of. They worked so hard to not raise their voices at me, or to let me choose my own friends, and here I am pulling up a blank page when asked about it. But that’s kind of the deal with parenting. We hope these things seep into the sinews of our children’s personalities or sense of goodness, but when they do, no one can usually recall how exactly they got there and who deserves credit for it.

But that was my childhood. For other folks, meals are minefields. You mention family dinner being “not even fun” and I can promise you you’re not alone in that. In a way, aren't meals a terrible time to attempt to foster whole-family connection? Everyone starts off hungry and cranky, everyone has to sit in what in my case is a very small space. For some children, sitting for long stretches is cognitively or physically difficult. Then, there is the food of it all. Many of us parents, myself included, have complicated histories with eating, and have to meet the ghosts of our own eating past at the table. Cooking for children can be a fool’s errand. It’s a place where young kids often find they can exert some kind of control, which, oh my God kill me if I have to wipe one more fleck of imaginary “pepper” off of a piece of chicken that I never in a million years would have had the audacity to spice!

A few years ago, I went on an internet-parenting-advice binge that actually proved helpful, digging into Ellyn Satter (though there’s a lot I find too precious here, “dinner from cans is still dinner” was life-changing for me) and the incomparable Virginia Sole-Smith. Making sure there were basics on the table my kids would eat and then leaving them the f*ck alone helped a ton. But then, as you mention, there is the scheduling and corralling. Oy.

I would venture a guess that you ask specifically about meals, though, not because of your own feelings about them, but because of the immense amount of parenting research that has been cited for decades as proof that family meals foster positive outcomes, like good grades and better nutrition. And perhaps more importantly, because family dinner allegedly prevents negative outcomes like substance use and teen pregnancy, which plays into our deeper parenting anxieties. In fact, there are very few household factors that are considered to be such a shoo-in as family meals.

After years of early-morning stats classes and conducting and analyzing studies that involve children, I am of the belief that most research findings, no matter how often they have been replicated, require closer scrutiny. And I return, often, to the greatest research maxim, which is very applicable to this whole family meals data issue: correlation does not equal causation.

Imagine that you visit karaoke bars all over the country, and notice that, when there is a guy named Kevin hanging out at the bar, the audience is more likely to be treated to a bad rendition of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Then you decide to collect actual data and you realize that, indeed, this connection is significant. You publish your data, it makes its way through the slow trickle of research to regular folks, and expectant parents all over the globe are convinced that if they name their babies Kevin, the world will have to listen to more sweating dudes doing an embarrassing voice to the line, “But that butt you got makes (me, me so horny).”

But being named Kevin does not cause someone to think that they know all the words to “Baby Got Back.” They simply happen to occur together at the same time (correlation). Usually the latter happens when there are other factors, in this case, say, being a white dude born between 1970 and 1990 in the United States, that make both of these things more likely to co-occur.

To apply this to the family meals literature, though there are many studies that link family meals to positive outcomes, very few prove that one causes the other, and many, more recently, have shown that when you control for additional factors, the relationship between meals and good shit weakens or disappears altogether.

We pressure ourselves and feel inadequate when we should just be doing whatever works for our family.

One study of almost 20,000 kids found that the connections between family meals and positive outcomes were strong if you just looked at that relationship in isolation. But once they controlled for other factors, they saw that there were differences between families who had meals together and those who didn’t (for example, higher incomes, more likely to have two parents and monitor kids more closely), the relationships were much smaller.

When they really tried to determine causation, that more family meals led to better-off kids and families, they saw no relationship. Another huge study had similar findings — that once you controlled for other family factors, family meals had no impact on children’s behavioral or academic outcomes.

This is a great example of where parenting research completely overshoots, and something which really amounts to nothing more than a nice idea gets filtered through the research-to-advice game of telephone and is mistaken as a necessary ingredient for a happy family. And then we pressure ourselves and feel inadequate when we should just be doing whatever works for our family.

I’m not saying there’s nothing here. It makes sense to me that, for some families in some situations, eating together supports a positive relationship to food, and is, well, nice. But don’t kill yourself to check a parenting box that isn’t as essential as the culture wants you to think it is. This kind of outsized weighting of shoddy research can cause real harm when we lose ourselves in some narrow parenting prescription and mistrust our own instincts and idiosyncratic ways of responding to the actual needs of ourselves and our children.

Maybe it’s dinner. Or breakfast, or a weekend lunch, or late-night tea and cake. Could be a chitty-chat in the drive-thru Starbucks line.

Maybe your family intimacy just has to be more fragmented, with several kids in different stages of life, or less loaded, or more spontaneous. A helpful framework from my teaching days is that every community needs routines, transitions, and traditions. When I feel bad about how shitty I am at providing routines for my family (this is a huge point of shame for many ADHD parents like me), I try to get creative with how I can make our already-existent transitions count for more, like stopping for a donut on the way to school on Fridays or playing our “Girls on Bikes” playlist while we ride to drop-off.

And I remember that our family traditions, like inviting another family over for Shabbat once every few months, carry some weight for our well-being even if they are sporadic.

With older kids especially, making time for connection, in any weird way you can get it, is probably something good to aspire to, not because it prevents teen pregnancy but just because we have to doggedly pursue them even as they reject us or we let them win. Maybe it’s dinner. Or breakfast, or a weekend lunch, or late-night tea and cake. Could be a chitty-chat in the drive-thru Starbucks line. Maybe it’s pretending to not understand their shows while you do paperwork. It worked for my family, but the only thing that really matters is what works for yours.

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