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Dr. William J. Doherty, Ph.D. Headshot

The One Thing All Parents Should Stop Doing At Dinnertime

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A study released last month in Pediatrics journal found that more than 70% of parents struggle with a bad dinnertime habit.

The bad habit: swiping, typing and talking on cell phones. Of 55 caregivers studied, researchers recorded 40 of them using a mobile device during their meal. But, is sending an occasional text or answering a call during dinner really that bad?

As a father, family therapist and researcher who has conducted five studies about family dinners, including my current initiative "The State Of Dinnertime In America," an in-depth research project for Barilla, I have found that the most important ingredient for meaningful family dinners is paying attention.

It's what our children and spouses or partners most want from us. Attention doesn't come automatically, however - it's a struggle for all of us in our fast-paced, distracted world. It means finding a common time to gather around a table, sharing nourishing and enjoyable food, turning off distracting technology, and talking and listening to one another's stories, worries, and joys.

We found that most Americans rate family meals as more important to children's emotional development than a long list of other healthy activities, from sports to religious attendance. In fact, 95% of Americans in our research believe that meal times are a unique opportunity to connect as a family.

And of course they are right. But our research also showed that these benefits do not happen when families are distracted during meals. The presence of any of the following distractions offset any benefits from family meals: watching TV, telephone or cell phone conversations, doing homework, playing electronic games and listening to personal music devices. These are harmless activities at the right time, but the right times do not include family meals.

Paying attention during a meal turns a feeding event into a family ritual. Will your grown up children remember any individual dinner when they reminisce? Not likely. But they will remember the overall experience of the family eating together, and these memories will be warm if they felt your loving and interested attention. Not the kind of attention that says, "I'm checking up on you," but the kind that says "I'm interested in you and your life." I learned to not ask my teenagers "What did you do in school today?" because it generally led to a stock answer like "Nothing." Can you see where that one leads? The next line is, "Nothing? You did nothing for six hours at school?"

Instead, I asked about what a friend was up to these days, or whether that boring teacher had gotten any more interesting recently. And I saved up stories from my day that I thought my kids might be interested in, like how mad my college students were about a test they thought was too hard. My kids particularly loved stories of my recent mistakes or screw-ups, and fortunately there was a rich reservoir to tap. For a good part of the meal, we were all paying attention to one another.

Some other interesting findings: We asked 1,000 children ages 8-18 about what they felt defines a high-quality family meal experience. Laughter came out on top as a defining characteristic. Laughter occurs when people are tuned into one another.

We also asked children in our study about barriers to connecting over family meals. As you might imagine, the biggest culprit was arguing. Here, I'm afraid that my wife and I made the same mistake as many other parents: too much arguing with our children about what they were not eating or not eating enough of. It was years later that I learned how counter-productive most of those conflicts were. Unnecessary power struggles undermine the benefits of family meals.

Other important players that define a quality dinner for children are the mood and atmosphere--people are relaxed and unhurried. One nearly miraculous thing we did when our children were young was to lower the dining room lights with a dimmer switch, and then light a candle. Young children practically go into trance in front of a candle, and their reward for a cooperative dinner (no fighting and minimal whining) was--to blow out the candle! Years later, we added music in the background, with our kids choosing the music (within limits).

There's much we can do as parents to make our family dinners more memorable - for our children AND for ourselves. Which brings us back to the original question: is checking your smartphone during dinner really going to affect your child's emotional development? Not every text harms your child, but the accumulation of distractions over many meals may signal that your priorities are elsewhere. Mealtime is an opportunity to give what children most want: your attention.

We can all learn from each other's family mealtime experiences. Share your successes and challenges by using #ShareTheTable.