A Simple Way to Keep Your Kids Out of Rehab

Last Updated Mar 14, 2011 9:16 AM EDT

Worried about raising a future Charlie Sheen? Here's a low-cost, easy, enjoyable strategy for keeping your kids on the straight and narrow: family dinner.

According to a 2010 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), teens who have infrequent family dinners (less than three per week) are:
  • twice as likely to use tobacco and alcohol,
  • one and a half times as likely to use marijuana, and
  • twice as likely to say they can score drugs in less than an hour.
Why is dinner so effective? Not because parents are using table time to drill their kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. "The nightly ritual of a family dinner gives families a relaxed opportunity to come together, connect and communicate, and to really talk and listen," says Lauren Duran, director of communications for CASA. "It sends kids the message that their parents are there for them every night of the week, like a regular check-in. Need to talk about something? I'm here. Want to ask me something? I'm here. Want to show off or complain about something? I'm here."

Chatting over the tacos isn't an ironclad guarantee to keep your kids out of trouble, Duran says, but the odds are better you'll raise a healthy child. And lessening the likelihood of substance abuse is just one of the benefits. Kids who eat dinner most nights with their parents get better grades. They have higher self-esteem, according to the Family Dinner Project. I'd venture that in many cases, they're getting better nutrition from a home-cooked meal and their parents are spending less than if everyone is doing take-out on their own schedule.

It's so simple, and the research goes back 20 years proving the importance of family dinners -- but it feels more difficult than ever to get that time in. Against the competing pressures of teens' after-school activities, friends, homework, and parents' work schedules, dinner together is not easy to execute. With technology, the distractions multiply.

Last night, for the first time in a week, I sat down at the dining room table with the other three people in my family. A combination of work and travel had kept my husband or me or both away for the previous six nights. And our kids are only 6 and 4. It's embarrassing. I'm redoubling my efforts to get us together from 6:15 to 7:15 every night and to hold that time sacred. Because if I can't do it now, no way I'll be able to pull it off when the kids are teens. And, frankly, I treasure seeing everyone's face for awhile.

Experts say the meal doesn't have to be dinner. Breakfast will do. It just has to be consistent family time to connect. Banish electronic devices of any kind. Involve your kids in the cooking and planning of the meals. In the end, the sense of connectedness you create for your kids doesn't cost you anything. But as the research shows, that time may prove priceless.

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Photo courtesy Flickr user Chris Palmer, CC 2.0
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