Why a family meal is so important: Children who eat dinner without their dads are unhappier – even if their mum is there, study finds
- Researchers looked at 1,400 married couples with two-year-old children
- Children who ate with their father less often behaved worse
Fathers who don’t come home for dinner with their families can end up with even more misbehaving children.
Researchers looked at more than 1,400 married couples with two-year-old children and calculated how many dinners the child ate per week with their mother and also with their father.
Then, when the child was four or five years old, they asked the parents questions about their behavior, such as tantrums and sharing.
Toddlers who ate with their father less often behaved worse as they got older.
That was the case even when they ate dinner with their mother every day – suggesting it’s best to have both parents present.
Fathers who don’t come home for dinner with their families can end up with even more misbehaving children
Sehyun Ju, who led the research at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, said: ‘During family meals, children learn by watching adults share food, interact with each other, have conversations and make eye contact.
‘This is a unique daily experience that can help them learn to communicate and behave.
“These results suggest that it is important to have the whole family around the table because fathers, like mothers, bring important and unique qualities.”
The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that children who ate less often with their mothers at age two — perhaps with another family member or a babysitter instead — also behaved worse in old age.
Just one day per week when a father or mother was missing from the dinner table was significantly linked to poorer childhood behavior.
Fathers who were dissatisfied with their work and financial situation appeared to dine with their families less often.
This was regardless of whether they worked long hours, suggesting that men who are unhappy at work may not have the energy or motivation to come home for dinner with their child.
Toddlers who ate with their father less often behaved worse as they got older
When fathers were more dissatisfied with work, mothers ate dinner with their child more often.
That could show that women are trying to compensate for stressed fathers by taking their place at the dinner table.
But the results suggest that even when mothers are at the table, children can lose out in their father’s absence.
No matter how often women ate dinner with their toddler, the child’s behavior was worse when their father ate dinner with them less often.
The study also found that women who were dissatisfied with their jobs and financial situations had worse-behaved children – perhaps because they were more tired and less emotionally involved with their children.
But unlike fathers, mothers were not less likely to attend dinner with their child if they were unhappy at work.
The apparent importance of parental presence at mealtimes was recognized even after researchers took into account the involvement of mothers and fathers in their children’s lives in general, for example at bedtime and bath time.
The study authors say: ‘It is possible that parents who can maintain family meal routines despite their work-related stress have better boundaries between work and family and a greater ability to regulate stress.’
Dr. Karen Kramer, senior author of the study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said: ‘Dinnertime for young children is typically around five or six o’clock, but the expectation for parents to be home early in the day does not. connect with being an ideal employee.
“Policy initiatives to provide a work environment and community support that facilitate family meals would be important.”
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