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How Family Dinners with Young Children Could Help Curb Bullying

11/26/2010 11:58 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If you're ever struggling to make dinner-table conversation with a young child, one question will save you every time: "So tell me, what was the favorite part of your day?"

My family has turned this question into a family dinner ritual. My younger daughter always raises her hand as soon as the question is asked, hoping to go first. My kids always roll their eyes when I tell them my favorite part of the day was my drive home from the office. And my father always uses the question to remind people that one day he'll be dead.

I'll explain more about that later.

I originally hoped to shed light on what appeared to be a new and under-reported positive impact that family dinners had on young children: a decrease in bullying. Ever since 1996, when the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported a decrease in the rate of teen substance abuse that was tied to a higher frequency of family dinners, researchers have spent thousands of hours studying the dinnertime habits of the American family. Experts all agree that quality conversation at the dinner table has a significant, positive impact on a teenager's behavior.

This research generated a cottage industry of people writing cookbooks and how-to manuals to get teens talking over food. The Huffington Post even launched Family Dinner Downloads: every week the editors provide a list of questions tied to current events, like voter turnout, the background of the term "shellacking" and Willow Palin's Facebook tirades.

Unfortunately there aren't many conversation starters for the little kids' table. Let's face it, my six-year-old cares more about the salt shaker than the midterm elections. And when my eight-year-old hears about a Tea Party, she wants to join, no questions asked.

The Dairy Council of California jumped onto the family-dinner bandwagon by issuing a press release claiming that family dinners could create lifetime benefits including better grades, lower intakes of sugary soft drinks (which means more milk) and a possible 40-percent reduction in the chance that a child will bully someone else.

This last statistic is what caught my attention. A 40-percent reduction related to bullying was huge. Did certain conversation topics make a difference? Was there an average time parents spent talking to kids? Did lecturing count?

I tracked down the lead researcher for the study. Dr. Rashmi Shetgiri is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She agreed to answer a few questions.

"I'm not sure where the 40 percent number came from," she wrote. "The study unfortunately didn't examine some of the very important aspects you mention, such as what parents talked about, how long they talked, or where the talking happened. One of our conclusions was, however, that improving parent-child communication and parental involvement with their children could have a substantial impact on child bullying."

While I was disappointed to learn that the 40-percent figure didn't hold water, I wasn't completely discouraged. Our "Favorite Part of the Day" family dinner ritual could help keep kids from bullying. Maybe. It's simple enough to try.

Here's how it works:

  1. Each person needs to share something good that happened that day.

  • The good thing can't be "right now" (meaning dinner). The person needs to share something about his or her day that other people (like me, who is stuck in an office all day) might not know.
  • "Screens" don't count. This means kids (or adults) can't talk about television shows, online social networking or video games.
  • A person can ask to "pass," but a pass only allows the person to go last. Each person still needs to share.
  • No one can leave the table until everyone has shared a favorite part of the day.
  • Sometimes a child will say, "I didn't have a favorite part of the day. Nothing good happened." This presents an opportunity to help that child turn the day around. And then there are times when a child mentions an event that makes you cringe, like when they witnessed some other child do something embarrassing, or even something that qualified as bullying. These instances present opportunities to help the child realize his or her favorite part of the day might have been someone else's least favorite. Then the parent can explain what the child should do the next time around.

    Most nights at my house we hear about good things. One night my younger daughter demonstrated a jump rope move she had learned at school. My son often recounts amazing soccer moves. My oldest has been skimping on details lately. She might be afraid we'll figure out that she was goofing off in class -- again.

    When my parents visit, my mother carefully finds a favorite thing that happened with each person at the table. As I mentioned earlier, my father takes a different approach. "My favorite part of the day was waking up this morning," he says with a laugh, as if the image of him not waking up is something his grandchildren would find to be funny.

    It kind of makes me want to ask, "How about those midterm elections?"

    What are your dinnertime rituals? Do you think there are benefits to eating quietly? What was your dinner table like when you were growing up?