Emory Report
October 31, 2005
Volume 58, Number 9


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October 31 , 2005
Family meals important to children’s emotional health

By Beth Kurylo

Research by two Emory 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 pee∫rs 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 a higher self-esteem and sense of control.

The findings come from the Family Narratives Project, directed by Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, faculty fellows at the 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 ages of 9 and 12. More than 120 hours of recorded conversation were analyzed.

“We were particularly interested in the transition into adolescence, which is critical for identity and for self-concept,” said Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology. “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 both a positive event and a negative event they shared together. Researchers analyzed routine dinner-table interactions and the kinds of stories that emerged in conversations. They also asked the children “Do you know?” questions, developed by Duke to measure how much children know about their family histories (such as how their parents met, where their grandparents grew up and went to school, etc.).

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 said. “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, she continued. Almost every dinnertime conversation began with parents asking the child how was school 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, Duke and Fivush said. This is particularly true when discussing a negative event—say, the death of a grandparent. Resilience is nurtured when the child understands that negative events don’t define the family history, and children also learn how to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of life.

“As the family talks about things,” said Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology, “I think they are teaching the kids about assessment, about appraisal: ‘How bad is this? How good is this?’”

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 said.

For more information on MARIAL research, go to: http://www.marial.emory.edu/.