The Mac-and-Cheese Effect
Why family dinner makes working parents (especially moms) feel better.
The family dinner is ambrosia and nectar and manna, too, researchers have long told us. It helps prevent teenagers from abusing drugs and alcohol or smoking, and it protects them from stress, asthma, and eating disorders. It boosts kids' reading scores and grades. By the time all the virtues of dinner togetherness have been extolled, you can only feel that if you love your kids, you have to get home in time to sauté the stir fry. You might even cut back to working part time to force-feed them falafel, as law professor Cameron Stracher relates in a book he published last year. Or you can resolve to spend Sundays shopping and serving as your own sous-chef, as the New York Times' Leslie Kaufman outlines here.
Actually, the link between family dinner and idyllic child-rearing is a little more complicated than our collective bending of the knee might suggest. It may be that family dinner appears to shine because parents who eat with their kids also stuff them with other forms of enrichment. Or that the benefits come not from dinner per se but from the quality of the conversation that takes place at the table (and, in theory, could happen at any time of day). Are you talking as well as listening, answering queries ("What a good question!"), and telling stories that naturally lead to useful lessons and bits of information? For more on just how the benefits of the family dinner unfold, listen to this NPR piece.
Good, you're back, and now that the kids are out of the way, let's think about some other members of the family: ourselves. What do parents get out of family dinner? Is it all intellectual and emotional milk and honey for them, too? Or is having dinner with your kids a chore, one more sacrifice of peace, quiet, and cabernet for their sake?
Happily, according to a new study, family dinner appears to be good for parents, too. The research by lead author Jenet Jacob of Brigham Young University found that among 1,580 parents who worked at IBM, those who said their jobs interfered less with being home for dinner tended to feel greater personal success, and success in relationships with their spouses and their children. The working parents—both mothers and fathers—had all of these buoyant feelings if they made it home for dinner more regularly, even if they still worked long hours. They also felt more kindly toward their workplace. Parents who missed dinner at home because of work, on the other hand, felt gloomy about their professional futures. "It is noteworthy that although longer work hours predicted significantly greater perception of success in work life, work interference with dinnertime predicted lower perception of success in work life," Jacob and her co-author write.
I revel in this kind of study because it confirms my pet biases. I hate never-ending workdays. Kids or no kids, they are grueling, and I don't really believe that most people get much more work accomplished in 10 or 12 hours than they do in eight. (Or six? Oof, I feel a coffee-break urge coming on.)
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.