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Your kids spend most evenings scarfing down dinner in the back seat while you race them to dance class. Or maybe your teens are fixing their own food with mom and dad trapped in the rush-hour commute home. If so, a cluster of studies have suggested that the absence of the traditional sit-down dinner may be dooming your offspring to depression and delinquency. (Let's leave out the notion of that dinner being low-sodium, multigrain and home-cooked.)

Pass that guilt on down the table: New research says the family dinner may not be as essential an ingredient in child happiness and well-being as previously believed. Looking more closely at a sample of 18,000 U.S. teens from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a Cornell University study published in this month's Journal of Marriage and Family found that the positive effects of family dinners on teen depression, substance abuse and delinquency to be much weaker. Gathering as a family at the dinner hour does have benefits, but those weaken and become mixed over time. Lead researcher Kelly Musick, an associate professor of policy analysis, says there's no evidence that family dinners on their own make a substantial difference in teen well-being – except as part of the rituals and practices of families with good relationships already.

In other words, there's little point in forcing your teens to the dinner table if they don't want to hang out with you.

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"We are probably overstating quite a bit what would happen if a family just started having dinner together, and nothing else changed about their behaviour," says Dr. Musick, who co-authored the study with Ann Meier, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota.

It's also not clear what it is about a family dinner that is positive, Dr. Musick says, or that families can't have the same bonding time in a different context. (For instance, in another U.S. study, about 70 per cent of teens said that other than dinner time, they chat with their parents in the car to and from school and activities.) In fact, looking more closely, the question posed in the study is problematic: It asks teens how often they ate dinner during the previous week with one parent in the room. (So, basically, mom could have been on her BlackBerry the entire time.)

"Dinner tends to be a time where through food you can create a lot of comfort," Dr. Musick says. But "if what matters is finding a context where you can connect with your kids and build some routine and ritual in which people feel comfortable, you could probably do it some other way. But in this harried world, it would have to be deliberate."

In other words, it's not when or how you pay uninterrupted attention to your kids – it's that you take the time to do so.

When does your bonding time happen with your kids? Do you worry about missing family dinners?

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