Research by two Emory University psychology professors shows that families who regularly share meals together have children who know more about their family history and tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher resilience in the face of adversity. In addition, families who openly discuss emotions associated with negative events, such as the death of a relative or a pet, have children with higher self-esteem and sense of control.
The findings come from the Family Narratives Project, directed by Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, psychology professors at Emory and faculty fellows at the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL). The three-year study focused on 40 families from metro Atlanta who tape recorded dinnertime conversations, and answered questions that allowed researchers to measure how well the family functions. Each family had one pre-adolescent between the age of 9 and 12. More than 120 hours of recorded conversation was analyzed.
“We were particularly interested in the transition into adolescence, which is critical for identity and for self-concept,” says Fivush. “Adolescence can also be a period of great stress for the family. So we wanted to know what skills and strengths the child is coming into that period with.”
Each family discussed a positive event and a negative event they shared together. Researchers analyzed routine interactions at the dinner table and the kinds of stories that emerge in conversations. They also asked the children “Do You Know” questions developed by Duke to measure how much a child knows about his or her family history, such as how parents met and where grandparents grew up and went to school.
Two years later, when the children were ages 11-14, researchers visited families again. “The power of the family stories and the family history is really remarkable,” Fivush says. “There seems to be something that’s particularly important about children knowing where they came from in a larger sense and having a sense of family history and a family place.”
It’s not only what the families say, but how they talk about events together that is important, Fivush notes. Almost every family dinnertime conversation began with parents asking the child how school was that day. Eventually, the conversation often turned to “remote events,” such as a family trip to Disney World or a visit to Grandma’s house.
Children benefit when parents listen to them and validate what they say and how they feel. This is particularly true when discussing a negative event Ð say the death of a grandparent.
Resilience is nurtured when the child understands that negative events don’t define the family history, Duke and Fivush said. Children also learn how to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of life.
“As the family talks about things, I think they are teaching the kids about assessment, about appraisal. How bad is this? How good is this?” Duke says.
Duke worries that many families have abandoned the family meal, and may be losing the benefits that help nurture resilient children. “The time we spend with the family at the dinner times should be held sacred,” he says.
From Emory University Health Sciences Center