What's the funniest thing that happened in school today?"
My father considered this a foolproof conversational gambit and would spring it on my siblings and me every evening during dinner. It wasn't a rhetorical question, either. He expected all five of us to amuse my mother and him with a story and no mumbling, not to mention self-pity, was allowed.
FOR THE RECORD - A Jan. 9 Home & Family article about families dining together misstated a 1998 survey result by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The survey found that 47 percent of American teenagers ate an evening meal with their family at least five nights a week.
The Sun regrets the errors.
"Enunciate from the gut!" he'd command, if we didn't speak up with sufficient gusto.
I thought about Dad, dining and declaiming, while reading a recent survey by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University titled "The Importance of Family Dinners." This report shows not only that the family meal is gaining in popularity -- in 2003, 61 percent of American teenagers ate an evening meal with their family at least five nights a week, as opposed to 57 percent in a 1998 CASA survey -- but that there is a strong correlation between frequent family dinners and reduced risk that a teen will smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.
What's more, CASA reports that children who eat regularly with their families are less likely to have sex at young ages, get into physical fights, be suspended from school, or have thoughts of suicide. These behavioral patterns hold true regardless of the child's gender, or the family's socioeconomic level.
For many families, eating together has gone by the wayside due to the pressures of both parents working and the scheduling complexities posed by children's sports, lessons and other after-school activities. Others, though, struggle to bring their brood together. For them, the family meal is not merely a tradition, but a vital means of improving their children's chances in life.
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City (and former chairman of the Johns Hopkins University Board of Trustees), has publicly credited his success -- both in business and politics -- to his strong-willed mother, who insisted that her family gather for dinner every evening. And even though Dr. Benjamin Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, often works till 8 or 9 at night, his family waits to eat until he arrives home.
Then there's Joyce McCormick, a homemaker in Ruxton. "Everyone is much busier than they used to be, everyone's going in different directions," she said. "But I read that one of the characteristics common to all Merit scholars is that they sat down to eat with their family. So, sometimes my schedule gets thrown off because I'm picking the kids up somewhere, and not in the kitchen cooking, but I'd rather eat at 8:30 than not eat together."
McCormick, who has two sons, Hugh, 15, and John, 13, goes on to say, "Any opportunity to spend time and enjoy each other is really well worth it. I feel my kids are growing up so fast, they will be gone in a minute."
Jo Alexander, who is head of corporate communications for Eddie's of Roland Park, agrees. She and her husband, Bob, are raising their 15-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth, in what Alexander terms a blended family. The three of them not only gather to eat, but they work together in preparing the food, setting the table and cleaning up afterward.
"This is a time when everything stops. My granddaughter waits until the last bite of her meal, then she tells us about every one of her seven classes and what happened during lunch," she said. "If we didn't eat together, we'd never hear this information."
Families, of course, spend time together in many ways: playing sports, driving in the car, watching movies and television. But these activities, experts agree, are qualitatively different in that they are fraught with distractions. Simply being together in the same house, too, does not necessarily mean that anyone is communicating. Some studies show that many parents and children spend as little as 15 minutes a day actually talking with each other.
But everyone has to eat, said Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen, president of the Baltimore Hebrew University, who is also a sociologist who's spent time studying the phenomenon of the family meal. "If you can get everyone around the table, it's a natural for face-to-face conversation. Dinner is the family forum. You can talk about the day, about something that upset you, or you can ask for help. Your family is a group that loves you no matter what. We all need a shot of that in our impersonal society."
While any shared meal can be an opportunity for communication, dinner usually works best, believes Diane Macklin, a marketing executive in Pikesville who is mother of 13-year-old Jessica and 10-year-old Joshua. "In the morning, we are just rushing around getting ready for school, so breakfast doesn't work. Lunch is out for obvious reasons. But dinner is a more easygoing atmosphere. When you finally sit down, stuff just comes out. My kids will tell me something funny that happened in their day. I know people that let their kids fend for themselves. But I make it a priority to eat with them."