I went to college in my hometown, so my friends often accepted dinner invitations to go home with me. No college student can resist a good Southern home cooked meal! One night in particular still stands out in my mind. Everyone including my four friends gathered around dad in the kitchen as he shared how excited and blessed we were to have them join our family. We all held hands, prayed, and sat down around the family table to eat. The meals always included fun family stories an aspect of the occasions that too often I took for granted.
As we were leaving, one of my friends stopped me and with sincerity and a deep longing in his voice said, “You have the perfect family. You’re really lucky.” I thought, “My family, perfect?”
Then I realized that I was seeing and hearing the pain of someone from a broken home who longed for a family – a family who ate together, laughed together, and had lots of family stories from time spent together.
Studies support the idea that family is one of the most influential factors if not THE most important factor in a child’s development and wellbeing.
A 2002 Child Trend’s Report on family strength emphasized the importance of not only family relationships but also family behaviors. Regular family routines – meals, chores, errands – are linked to a child’s academic achievement and self-esteem, and child-parent time spent together helps motivate education and socialize children. High parental involvement during high school increases the likelihood that children will attend college, vote, and volunteer. Supervised young people are less likely to engage in early or frequent sexual relations. The study also reported children who receive communication and praise are less at risk for delinquency and alcohol and drug use. The research shows that children whose parents demonstrate warm support and at the same time high demands for appropriate behavior tend to be content, self-reliant, and self-controlled.
The parent’s role of instilling values in children remains one of the most influential aspects of parenting, and some parents may be surprised to find out that teens still care about their parents’ approval. A 2002 study by the Institute for Youth Development asked teens what factor most affected their decision about whether or not to have sex. Thirty-nine percent answered morals, values, and /or religious beliefs. Of the remaining teens, 17 percent answered STDs, 15 percent said pregnancy, and 10 percent said sex education. Youth who said their parents would “strongly disapprove if they tried marijuana once or twice” used any illicit drug at a rate of 7.1 percent compared with 31.2 percent for youth who thought their parents “did not strongly disapprove.”
The IYD reported “hands-on” parents place teens at a much lower risk of smoking, drinking, and using drugs than the average teenager. “Hands-on” households were defined as parents who consistently implemented 10 or more of the following 12 actions:
Monitor what their teens watch on TV Monitor what their teens do on the Internet Put restrictions on the music CDs their teens buy Know where their teens are after school and on weekends Expect to be and are told the truth by their teens about where they are really going Are “very aware” of their teen’s academic performance Impose a curfew Make clear they would be “extremely upset” if their teen used marijuana Eat dinner with their teens six or seven times a week Assign their teen regular chores Turn off the TV during dinner Have an adult present when the teen returns from school
Teens of “hands-off” parents are four times more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior than teens of “hands-on” parents. A 1996 Journal of Family Issues also found that family disruption and lack of parental involvement during childhood correlated with an increase in lying, cheating, fighting, and criminal activity among youth.
In “The Parent Trap” William Mattox, Jr. quoted Harvard University child psychiatrist Robert Cole saying, ” The frenzied need of children to have possessions isn’t only a function of the ads they see on TV. It’s a function of their hunger for what they aren’t getting – their parent’s time.” When 1,500 school children were asked the question, “What do you think makes a happy family?” the most frequent answer was not money, nice houses, cars, or TVs. The most frequent answer was “doing things together.”
In today’s fast-paced world, time for parental involvement may seem scarce. According to author Peter Benson, in 1991 twenty percent of sixth through twelfth graders said that they had not experienced a good conversation for at least ten minutes with at least one parent in more than a month. The idea of families sitting down around a dinner table to share meals seems out of touch with reality and almost impossible, but IYD reported shared dinner meals as a major indicator of healthy youth development. The risk for youth sexual activity and substance abuse significantly decreased for youth who shared five or more dinner meals with both parents.
The IYD report stated, “A multifaceted process is going on, the processes of communication, the sharing of feelings, the giving and sharing of advice, help, support, information. Whatever is going on during dinner meals appears to be very important.”
When my friends sat around the table with my family, they did not see a perfect family. They saw the benefits of a traditional family with two parents committed to their marriage and raising their children in biblical principles and “hands-on” love. After that night when my friend talked about how lucky I was, I realized how much I had taken for granted. I thanked God for my family and the shared times of laughter and fun around the dinner table where my friends were warmly welcomed.
America has tried helping children through reforming welfare, education, and many other programs, but when it comes down to it, what kids need most of all is a family – a “hands-on” family.