Family Time

Simply Showing Up For Dinner Can Make Your Kids More Emotionally Intelligent

New research examines just how important a dad's presence at the dinner table really is.

Originally Published: 
A dad's child puts a piece a food in his mouth as they eat family dinner together at home.
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Kids pick up on more than we give them credit for — and a parent’s work stress is no different. That much is obvious, but a recent study finds that, unfortunately, parents’ work stress is negatively linked to their child’s development. And for dads in particular, missing family dinner for work is particularly harmful.

“We found that children of parents who expressed higher work-related stress when the children were 2 years old had lower socioemotional competency at age 4 to 5, measured by lower positive and higher negative social behaviors,” lead author Sehyun Ju, a doctoral student in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, said in a press release.

The researchers surveyed more than 1,400 dual-earner families made up of straight, married men and women with kids in the U.S. For the study, they focused on children’s development from nine months old to kindergarten, family mealtimes, and parents’ job and financial dissatisfaction.

They found that dads who were more dissatisfied with their job and finances were less likely to be at family meals. And dads missing family meals led to their kids having lower socioemotional competence at ages 4 and 5 — struggling with communication, social interaction, and self-regulation.

“Even when the mother increased her mealtime presence to compensate for the father’s absence, the child’s socioemotional development was still negatively impacted. This indicates fathers may have a unique influence that cannot be replaced by the mother,” co-author Qiujie Gong, a doctoral student in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, said in a press release.

Moms who were stressed out at work were no less likely to be present at family meals — probably due to traditional gender roles. “Mothers are considered primary caregivers, and they are expected to be present and feed their children no matter what,” Karen Kramer, Ph.D., an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois and co-author of the study, said in a press release. However, moms’ dissatisfaction with their jobs was directly linked to their kids having worse social and emotional skills.

Now, there’s only so much that parents can do to try to compensate for missing family meals. “We have to acknowledge the challenges that families face in creating consistent routines,” Kramer said. “Dinner time for young kids is typically around five or six o'clock, but the expectation that parents are home early in the day doesn’t align with being an ideal worker.” Larger shifts in workplace policy or culture are needed to allow families to prioritize family mealtimes.

Luckily, stress management can help parents keep their work stress from rubbing off too much on their kids. From breathing exercises to yoga to a good massage, there are plenty of effective stress relief techniques that are proven to be effective, and it can make work all the more manageable.

If it’s possible for you to get home in time for dinner, prioritizing that could make a difference in your child’s life. But if it’s impossible based on your work schedule, there are plenty of other ways to support your child’s social and emotional development, including reading to them and discussing the feelings and relationships between characters, and simply playing with them. One thing is certain: Your involvement matters.

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