But after making my Wi-Fi confession, I was stunned by Khan’s response. “Personally, in my own house, I try not to touch a computer or cellphone when I come home,” he told me. “Parents should try as much as possible to quarantine the technology” — unless they’re using it to go on joint explorations with their kids. Khan, who has a 4-year-old son and a 20-month-old daughter, has simply learned to deal with an inbox full of e-mail when he shows up at the office in the morning. Yet he admits that his wife, a busy rheumatologist, has yet to sign on to his quarantine policy. “I get frustrated at the dinner table when my wife is texting,” he said.
For Khan, it’s all about the proper use of technology. Harness it to make your life richer and more efficient, but refuse to let it take over.
IF WE FUMBLE A BIT at helping with homework, that’s not such a bad thing. As it turns out, homework doesn’t play a particularly important role in improving academic performance. A recent international study of educational systems, which was conducted by the company behind The Economist, ranked Finland first. That’s the same Finland where the school calendar is light and homework is almost nil, in comparison with the 17th-place United States. (Then again, the No. 2 spot went to South Korea, where the pressure for students to perform is so intense that the average family spends about 20 percent of its income on private tutoring and the government has had to crack down on late-night “cram schools.”)
After spending more than three decades studying homework, Harris Cooper, chairman of Duke University’s psychology and neuroscience department, has become the nation’s leading authority on the subject. He told me that homework can improve academic results, as long as it’s kept to about 90 minutes per night for middle school students and about two hours for those in high school. More than that tends to be counterproductive, adding stress while cutting into desperately needed sleep.
Cooper and researcher Erika Patall, now at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the effect of parental involvement with homework on kids’ academic performance. Surprisingly, they found a negative association for middle school students (unlike for younger and older kids). Patall suspects it’s due to the conflict arising from nagging reminders about homework at a time when kids are naturally trying to pull away from the yoke of their parents.
There’s something that’s far more reliably associated with academic success than homework. It’s also closely associated with a variety of good outcomes for kids: healthy diets, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of drug and alcohol use, depression, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy. It’s the family dinner.
Findings like that make me happy that my own family eats together most nights, even if work and activity schedules mean the plates are often hitting the table at an hour when other households are starting to turn the lights out. But the main reason I like family dinner is that it’s typically the time of day when I laugh the most. Don’t get me wrong. Not every dinner is a winner, and sometimes, in the face of sister squabbling, any of the Ward Cleaver in me loses out to the Al Bundy. More often than not, though, dinner is the time when all five of us are most likely to let our guards down and act silly.
By now, the power of the family meal is widely accepted (even if a few researchers suggest it has been overrated), and more parents appear to be trying to make it a priority. Remarkably, families with strained relations also have been shown to benefit from eating dinner together regularly. In one 2012 study, 57 percent of teenagers reported having family dinner five or more times a week. However, those self-reported figures may be inflated. A University of California, Los Angeles study that videotaped the routines of nearly three dozen middle-class families found that only 17 percent regularly had dinner together, often eating separately even when the entire family was home.
And even when everyone is seated around the same table, are they really eating together? When you go to restaurant and see a family where all the members have their faces glued to a different smartphone or iPad, you have to wonder what the point is.
For answers, I turned to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a University of Minnesota professor whose team has produced the deepest body of research on the family dinner. She said it’s too soon to tell whether all that mealtime texting and surfing will erode the power of the dinner. But she and her colleagues did explore a close analog — television — with some unexpected results. They took a diverse group of middle and high school students — some who regularly had family dinner while watching TV, some who had it while the TV was off, and others who almost never had family dinner — and then compared their nutritional intake and their use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. When it came to nutrition, those who had family dinner without TV ate slightly better than those who ate with the TV on — but the difference was small. Yet both those groups of teenagers ate much better meals than those who didn’t do family dinner. Unfortunately, the data did not distinguish between families that were actively watching TV and those that merely had it on in the background. Nonetheless, the results suggest the act of eating together is more important than the level of conversational engagement. Continued...