The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Educated Mothers Getting Things Upside Down Down Under?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Sociologists have amassed so much evidence that family meals benefit children that it comes as bad news that some of the mothers most likely to know about that evidence are precisely the mothers least likely to give their children that benefit. Such bad news emerges as part of a new Australian study of family meals among families with children ages six months to six years. Conducted by researchers at Australia’s Deakin University, this new study finds that family meals occur significantly less often in homes with a well-educated mother than in homes with minimal education.

The authors of the new study begin their inquiry conscious of earlier investigations identifying “frequency of family meals in older children as a correlate of children’s psychological wellbeing [and] nutrient intakes.” The Deaken scholars focus especially on “evidence suggest[ing] that family meals influence food intakes and behaviours, which in turn impact children’s eating habits, diets and health.”

To clarify the circumstances in which children are most likely to enjoy the favorable impact of frequent family meals, the researchers analyze data collected from 992 parents, mostly mothers. Because “health outcomes are known to be socioeconomically patterned,” the researchers focus particularly on “family mealtime behaviours across socioeconomic circumstance.” The researchers take maternal education as their metric for establishing socioeconomic position (SEP), explaining that in previous studies “maternal education has been shown to be a valid and reliable indicator of SEP.”

Not surprisingly, these data reveal parental rating of the importance of family meals was “positively associated with higher SEP.” No doubt, highly educated mothers are more likely than less-educated peers to have read reports on the benefits of family meals.

But knowledge does not always mean action. Indeed, the researchers report that “when family meals were defined as ‘everyone who lives in the house eating together,’ higher parental education was associated with a lower frequency of family dinners” (Odds Ratio of 0.70).

The researchers—realizing that they have stumbled across a troubling pattern—remark, “Higher SEP is not often associated with less healthy behaviours; however, this finding is consistent with some of the previous research focused on SEP and family meal frequency.” 

No doubt fearful that they might step on one of the many landmines planted by colleagues zealously defending the standards of political correctness, the authors of the new study speak anxiously of how the “interplay of factors such as parental working hours, family size and partners’ education level is likely to influence family meal frequency and the association with SEP.” But it does not take an advanced degree to realize that the fundamental issue here is out-of-home maternal employment.

Current university curricula may expose women to the sociological evidence of the benefits of family meals. But those curricula also forcefully steer women towards out-of-home employment, so making such meals less likely. Ironically, then, it is the women whose limited education has never familiarized them with studies documenting the good effects of family meals who are most likely to actually deliver those benefits to their children.  

This is not an educational pattern indicative of collective social wisdom.

(Eloise-Kate V. Litterbach, Karen J. Campbell, and Alison C. Spence, “Family Meals with Young Children: An Online Study of Family Mealtime Characteristics, among Australian Families with Children Aged Six Months to Six Years,” BMC Public Health 17 [2017]: 111, Web, emphasis added.)