How do you get to know your children? What makes them tick, what concerns them, what’s going on in their daily lives, at school and with their friends? How do you get to know when something’s wrong?

By being with them daily… and there’s no more comfortable or natural way to do that than having dinner together each night.

In 1996, we noticed the results of our annual teen survey found that kids who had dinner with their parents every night of the week were far less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than kids who never had dinner with their parents. The kids who had frequent family dinners also tended to get A’s and B’s in school, were less likely to be stressed out, perpetually bored, or had friends who smoked, drank or used drugs.

Now, 17 years later, these same findings still hold true. This phenomenon has less to do with the food that’s on the plates and more to do with what’s happening at the table. The nightly ritual of a family dinner gives families a relaxed, nourishing context for coming together, connecting and communicating, talking and listening, seeing and hearing. It’s where parental engagement happens.

Family dining together

Parents who dine with their children most every night know where their kids are in the evening and whether their homework has been done. They can get a sense of what’s on their kids’ minds, who their kids’ friends are, what their kids are interested in, and how their moods change.

The nightly family dinner gives parents an opportunity to talk to their children on a regular basis. And it sends your kids these important messages:

Need to talk about something? I’m here.

Want to ask me something? I’m here.

Want to boast or complain about something? I’m here.

Why is the family dinner so important in raising drug-free kids? Kids appreciate it when Mom and Dad make a point of being there at dinner most every night. With both parents working, or Dad or Mom holding down two jobs to make ends meet, children realize that your being there shows a deep level of engagement. Being there for dinner creates big benefits for your children’s mental, physical and academic well-being.

Your children’s friends can influence your child’s behavior and views on substance use. Teens who have dinner with their families at least five times a week are:

  • Less likely to have friends who drink and smoke pot.
  • Less likely to go to parties where alcohol and drugs are available.
  • Less likely to say that they can buy marijuana within a day.

Why are we so concerned about teen substance use at CASAColumbia? More 20 years of research has taught us that adolescence is the critical time when kids are at risk of experimenting with nicotine, alcohol and other drugs. In fact nine out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking or using other drugs before age 18.  

In 2001, CASAColumbia launched Family Day as a grassroots initiative to inform parents about all the benefits of frequent family dinners. The initiative has grown into a national movement that promotes simple acts of parental engagement as key ways to help prevent risky substance use in children and teens.   

What if dinner is virtually impossible for you to do as a family?  What if you work at night? Or can’t get home in time for dinner? Or your teen has so many activities, there’s no time to sit down for dinner as a family? These are all questions we’ve been asked by caring parents.

We hope you will join us in celebrating Family Day with us today, Sept. 23. Although having dinner is the easiest way to create routine opportunities for engagement and communication, you can certainly find other ways to spend time together that fit into your family’s schedule. Creating opportunities to connect is what’s key.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is founder and chairman emeritus of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia), a science-based, multidisciplinary organization designed to find the most effective ways to prevent and treat addiction. The former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare is the author of How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents.