The Communication Benefits of Dinner table talk: Why eat together as a family?
Eating together as a family can have multi-faceted benefits (Fulkerson, et. al. 2010). We probably don’t need research to tell us that spending time with our children or family is a good thing, but it’s nice to know that some of those old habits, which tend to be squashed or condensed in the busy way we sometimes live, potentially have consequences that are far beyond the food factor.
As a speech pathologist, my job involves the promotion and facilitation of good communication. More often than not, this occurs when an adult or child has difficulty communicating due to a specific medical or developmental reason. For example, aphasia after a stroke, cerebral palsy, speech and language delay etc. However, many of the principles and ideas that are generated through my work would be just as easily applied to most of us as we go about our day to day communication. For example, I recently read an interesting article about the communication and social benefits of eating dinner together as a family (Fishal, 2013).
Why eat together?
A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, indicates that families that eat together (usually dinner), are better able to enhance parent-child communication and promote healthy adolescent development (Fulkerson, et. al. 2010). Developing a positive parent-child communication line assists both parents and children to learn about themselves and their environment through repeated and reciprocal interactions. Establishing a healthy parent-child communication relationship is associated with healthy adolescent development, development of a child’s self-image and overall family social functioning ( Fulkerson, et. al. 2010).
From a communication perspective, mealtimes are prime opportunities for parents to engage their children in conversation. A compilation of research suggests that the fruits of such interactions may include the following:
- Provision of social support and emotional expression
- Monitoring of a child’s behaviour
- Opportunities to role model appropriate behaviours
- Coaching of social and cultural expectations
- Time for connecting with one another
(Falkerson, et. al. 2010).
Additional research indicates that regular family dinners are associated with reduced rates of children commencing high risk behaviours such as eating disorders and substance abuse. There are also positive associations between family mealtimes and youth nutritional intake, moral and literacy development, positive sense of self in teens, improved mental health, and frequent family meals can be a predictor of greater family cohesion and problem/emotion focused coping strategies ( Fulkerson, et. al. 2010). So overall, while there is much research still to be done to establish the exact correlation and association between these factors, eating meals together as a family seems to contribute to setting a good foundation for social and communication development.
A study by Spagnola & Fiese (2007) identifies that there are certain types of communication and language genres that are used at the dinner table. The authors, in summarising existing research, take care to observe that “Most of the research on family routines and rituals is correlational in nature; thus, we cannot offer strong statements about their causative influences” (Spagnola & Fiese, 2007).
Specific communication genres observed at the dinner table include:
- Cultural rules about speech
Specific topics observed at the dinner table include:
- Events of the day
- Stories of the past
- Planning as a family for future events
Mealtimes provide good avenues for parents and children to:
- Model language forms and reconnect, organise and structure appropriate dialogue.
- Use ‘meta-language’ which is the ability to talk about how we use, or should use language (opportunities to reflect on language itself). An example of meta-language is “How do you ask nicely?”.
- Practice taking turns, reading social and emotional cues and reason or elaborate out loud.
- Practice communication with multiple communication partners participating in a conversation.
- Build vocabulary via rich and diverse input.
Of course, mealtimes are not the only opportunity to achieve these aims; however they do provide a routine based, and regular setting to engage in constructive and reflective conversation. If mealtimes don’t seem to be working well in your house, (and we all know that mealtimes are not always smooth sailing), here are some ideas to help get the conversation flowing.
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This article was written by our speech pathologist Jenna Butterworth who is a Speech Pathology Australia member.
To find out more about speech therapy or to make an appointment with one of our speech pathologists contact us today!
Fishal, A. (2013). The Family Dinner Project. Accessed online on 19/08/13 from The Family Dinner Project.
Fulkerson, J.A., Pasch, K.E., Stigler, M.H., Farbakhsh, K., Perry, C.L., and Komro, K.A. (2010). Longitudinal associations between family dinner and adolescent perceptions of parent-child communication among racially-diverse urban youth. Journal of Family Pyschology, 24(3), 261-270.
Spagnola, M. & Fiese, B.H. (2007). Family routines and ritualsL A context for development in the lives of young children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284-299.