October 30, 2006

Study finds family dining helps parent-child bonds

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Here's food for thought. In a recent poll of 855 "tweens" — kids between the ages of 9 and 13 — designed to find out what they think about their folks, those in families who share daily meals responded more positively about their parents to every question asked.

"You can't use it as a predictor — that if you eat together, all this other stuff will happen," cautioned David A. Birch, chair of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Health Education and Recreation and one of two SIUC researchers conducting the periodic survey of children's attitudes.

"It's more of an indicator that you're doing other things well all across the board."

Birch and colleague Stephen L. Brown have been conducting these surveys roughly once each quarter for the past three years. Other polls have looked at such topics as bullying, children's most common worries and stress.

Children of both genders and five races attending 219 schools in settings ranging from rural areas to cities take part in the polls, responding to questions with remote control-like devices that count and compute their answers almost instantly.

"This is the technology generation," said Brown.

"They get excited about seeing their answers assimilated. It also lets us collect fairly large numbers of answers in a short period of time."

In this latest poll, the researchers asked the kids how often their parents asked about events and people in their lives, how much they felt loved, who they went to when they felt unhappy, which parents they liked to spend time with and the amount of time their parents spent on school-related activities.

While only 31 percent of all children surveyed said their parents talked with them as much as they wanted, 63 percent of those whose families eat together daily reported adequate parental interest in their lives.

Those children who seldom or never share family meals were less likely to say their parents loved them a lot.

While half the kids sought out their mothers first when they needed comforting, the "less often a family eats together, the less likely a kid is to go to either parent, and the more likely the same kid is to go to a friend or someone else," the researchers' report said.

Two-thirds of all kids liked to spend time with both parents, as did 68 percent of the kids whose families ate together weekly, while 79 percent of kids who shared daily meals liked doing things with mom and dad.

Roughly 40 percent of all kids wished their parents were at least a little if not a lot more involved in their schools. In contrast, 40 percent of kids sitting down to dinner every day with their folks deemed their parents' current level of involvement just fine.

Both Birch and Brown thought the seeming connection between food and feelings might make good fodder for another poll or even a separate piece of research.

"What if we took a family that did not have a pattern of eating together and got them to do so: Would we see changes in these other variables?" mused Brown.

Polls often lead to new questions, the researchers said. In the next survey, which begins in November, questions will focus on how children work out conflicts with each other, a question that arose out of the poll on bullying. This new round of surveys will also revisit the question of what worries children most.

"That seems to have generated the most interest of all the polls we did," Brown said.

"We would like to see if there are trends and patterns that develop over the years."

The polls are conducted with assistance and support from the National Association of Health Education Centers and the Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, creator of KidsHealth.org.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities and serving others are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.