Sunday dinners are a hallmark of black life. (Cue "Soul Food" closing scene.) And while psychologists have touted the family meal's beneficial affect on everything from curbing risky behavior among teens -- a problem that researchers say is on the decline among African Americans -- to lowering the risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems and substance dependencies, others say they aren't so convinced.
In a study of more than 21,000 children, ages five to 15, researchers from Columbia University and New York University determined that there wasn't any relationship between family meals and a child's academic outcomes or behavior.
Study co-author Daniel P. Miller, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, says there was no benefit to having breakfast together either.
"We find no relationship between family breakfasts or family dinners and any child outcomes -- reading, math and science scores, or behavior problems," Miller said in a release.
His study, which is slated to appear in the journal Child Development, draws upon data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. children who entered kindergarten in 1998 and were tracked through the eighth grade. To pinpoint the effect of family meal time on academic outcomes and behavior, Miller and his team also controlled for factors such as parental employment, television-watching, the quality of school facilities, and the years of experience the children's teachers had, among others.
The findings indicate that policy makers looking for ways to close the growing achievement gap between black children and their white counterparts are going to have to continue looking outside of the home.
That isn't to discount the value of family mealtime, however. "We would never suggest that families should not eat meals together,” Miller says. "The family meal table is an important place for parents and children to interact and communicate. However, it may be that the nature and extent of the influence of family dinners and breakfasts may be different than previously understood.”