What Makes Sit Down Meals Work in Boarding School? It’s the adults.
Regular readers know that we’re great fans of the sit-down/family style meal as an integral part (some argue- the most important part) of a traditional structured boarding school day.
In fact, I just returned from opening day at the Wolfeboro Camp School where we still have three sit-down meals daily; all students attend all meals. We believe in the power of sit down the mandatory, sit down dining experience guided by adult faculty. We support sit-down meals so strongly that we say they are one of the pieces of the school that we will never change.
This belief, along with my personal experiences with boarding school sit-down meals, chirped in the back of my head yesterday as read Ann Meier and Kelly Musick’s piece, “Is the Family Dinner Overrated?” in which they look at the study data of sit-down/family dinners and try to establish some causal relationships.
Pretty much everybody believes that parents and children sitting down to eat together regularly is a good idea. Meier and Musick look at the data and ask ‘really?’ What produces the positive outcomes- eating together or involved adults?
“First, we looked at the associations between family dinners and these measures of well-being at just a single point in time, in adolescence. Without controlling for any other factors, the associations between family dinners and well-being were quite strong and in line with past research. But the associations were far less striking after we accounted, with the help of the data, for the ways in which families who did and didn’t eat together tended to differ: for instance, in the quality of family relationships, in activities with a parent (a tally of things like moviegoing and helping with schoolwork), in parental monitoring (things like curfews and approving clothing) and in family resources (things like income and whether both parents were in the household).
…Next, as a more stringent test of causality, we looked at adolescents over the course of a year and examined how changes in the frequency of family dinners related to changes in well-being. If adolescents were eating family dinners more often a year later, were they better off? We found that following teenagers over a year provided even weaker evidence for the causal effects of family dinners on adolescent well-being — only the effect of family dinners on teen depressive symptoms held up. There was no effect on drug and alcohol use or delinquency.
Finally, we looked at whether family dinners in the teenage years had effects that persisted into young adulthood. Again, evidence for benefits was thin. We found no direct, lasting effects of family dinners on mental health, drug and alcohol use or delinquency. (Of course, it may be that family dinners have a stronger or more lasting effect on behavior that we didn’t study, like eating habits.)”(NYT)
To no surprise, it’s not eating together that produces better outcomes for kids it’s involved adults. The meal is not the causal effect. Duh.
Any boarding school administrator who runs sit down could tell you that it’s not the meal, it’s the fact that adults are present; interacting with the kids; making sure that the kids are fine; asking how they are; asking how, and what they’re doing; making sure everything is OK.
The meal simply provides an external framework, or structure, for mandatory adult involvement in a student’s life.
Adult connection doesn’t have to come at meal time. Meals just happen to provide slow points or break points in the day when adult and student schedules come together fluidly.
Meier and Musick conclude their NYT piece:
“What, then, should you think about dinnertime? Though we are more cautious than other researchers about the unique benefits of family dinners, we don’t dismiss the possibility that they can matter for child well-being. Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence: there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together. (A study by Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Use asked teens when, apart from dinner, they talked to parents about their lives: a vast majority said it was when driving in the car.)
But our findings suggest that the effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives. So if you aren’t able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don’t beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids.”
If your family schedule can’t accommodate family meals with the kids, the day includes other opportunities to check-in and connect with the kids.
Some kids and adults in boarding schools are still lucky enough to be able to enjoy, engage, and learn, from sit down, family style dining experiences every day.