Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dinnertime Without Dad

Don’t go to single-parent households for sparkling mealtime repartee. According to a team of researchers at Tufts University, dinnertime conversation in such households offers much less mental stimulation to the children reared there than does the dinnertime conversation in intact two-parent homes. After observing dinnertime conversations in 82 homes (35 two-parent households, 36 mother-only households, and 9 father-only homes), the researchers conclude (in the opaque language of the social sciences) that "family structure does impact interactional verbal process."

More specifically, "the absent adult in single-parent dinners was never fully compensated for, and the interaction which resulted was different." Simply put, "there was less speaking at these dinners," and in what speaking did take place, "the parental input…was less and the children’s input was more…. Children in single-parent homes accounted for more than half of the talk turns that occurred."

The Tufts team stresses the importance of "the family dinnertime as a natural setting for important communication of spoken language, and perhaps also values and attitudes," noting the potentially "beneficial effects on the development of children" in hearing adult conversation in such a setting. Children growing up hearing both parents at the dinner table will naturally enjoy these beneficial effects more fully than peers growing up hearing only one, while the greatest benefit may accrue to "children growing up in homes which [also] include grandparents...[who] have the potential of enriching the child’s growth through more adult contribution to dialogue."

(Source: Elizabeth L. Brach, Kathleen A. Camara, and Robert F. Houser, Jr., "Patterns of Dinnertime Interaction in Divorced and Non-Divorced Families," Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 32[2000]: 125-139.)

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