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HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Speaking of dinner

Family dinners aren't just about food. Learn how to boost your child's language skills one meal at a time.

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By GreatSchools Staff

While your child pushes her peas around her plate, you could be boosting her academic skills. Numerous studies show that children who regularly eat meals with their families have a larger vocabulary and score higher on academic achievement tests. Dinnertime is not just about sharing good-for-you food, however — it's about what happens at the table.

For years psychologists, teachers, counselors, and dieticians have touted the benefits of family meals. When families take the time to eat together, they generally consume healthier foods and engage in conversations that strengthen their bonds. Kids pick up social skills, while parents and siblings learn what's going on in each other's lives. And the benefits of family dinners extend to academic skills too.

What the studies say

Researchers at Harvard University and Washington University, as part of the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, gathered and analyzed data over a number of years to see what effects eating together as a family has on children's communication and academic skills. Diane Beals and Patton Tabors found that 3- and 4-year-olds whose family members exposed them to "rare" words — such as boxer, wriggling, and tackle — scored higher on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test at age 5 than those who weren't exposed to such words. And children who were exposed to rich vocabulary at mealtimes at ages 3, 4, and 5 were more likely to have better verbal skills up through sixth grade.

In 2000, researchers at the University of Illinois found that children ages 7 to 11 who did well on school achievement tests were the ones who ate meals and snacks with their families. In a 1994 Louis Harris and Associates survey of 2,000 high school seniors, those who ate dinner with their families four or more times a week scored better on tests than those who had family dinners three or fewer times a week. In a Harvard study that followed 65 children over eight years, researchers looked at a host of activities — play, story time, family events, and family dinners — to see which fostered healthy child development the most. Family dinners came out ahead.

Why do dinners make a difference?

Family meals provide that rare opportunity to have longer conversations. And longer conversations, researchers say, allow children to hear words they may not be familiar with and to enhance their linguistic development. Children are more likely to learn new vocabulary by figuring out how someone is using words in context rather than receiving direct instruction or dictionary definitions.

In her research, Beals looked at the effect of families having conversations with what she calls "rich content": "It could be discussing a trip to the zoo or seeing an orchestra perform 'Peter and the Wolf,' bringing in words like trombone and violin, giving children the opportunity to make connections between words and real-life events," she says. Children also need context to stretch their vocabulary. For example, if a mother tells her young child not to sing at the table because it's rude, the child begins to understand what rude means. With older kids, discussing current events or even homework assignments can expose them to new phrases.

Extended conversations aren't just for the dinner table. Driving in the car, playing at the park, and getting ready for bed are also prime opportunities to connect with your child. The key is to be willing to engage in these conversations whenever and wherever they may occur.

Children thrive on rituals, which makes family dinners especially appealing to them. When families eat together, parents can serve as role models by demonstrating social skills, eliminating distractions (like the computer, video games, and TV), and promoting healthy eating habits (your child is more likely to eat veggies if you eat them too) and good table manners.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/22/2009:
"There could be a 'Red Plate Night' when family members make positive statements about each other."
01/5/2009:
"Oh my, this is really great! Thanks a million times because I have two jobs and really, realistically do not have time to seat w/ my family together in the dining table. Please send us more tips . This is very helpful. Jeanna L."
10/8/2008:
"I love this article, thank you for giving me such creative ideas for having stimulating and educational conversations with my 11 year old son, who typically states 'I don't know what I learned in school today.'"
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