Kay S. Hymowitz is the author of "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children As Small Adults Endangers Their Future -- And Ours."
Last week's White House conference on teenagers kept coming back to one conclusion above all: that parental involvement is the best tonic for what ails troubled teenagers. President Clinton, calling attention to a report from the Council of Economic Advisers, announced that "teenagers that had dinner with their parents five times a week are far more likely to avoid smoking, drinking, violence, suicide and drugs." He and the first lady trumpeted a campaign to encourage family togetherness, and he promised to make it easier for federal workers to spend time with their teenagers.
Would it were so simple. The uncomfortable truth is that eating dinner with your teenage daughter will not by itself reduce her chances of engaging in risky behavior any more than merely sitting in the passenger seat of a car next to your 15-year-old son will help him learn how to drive.
The problem is not simply that some parents don't spend time with their kids or aren't close to them; it is that many adults fail to use that time to define a moral universe for their children. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that two-thirds of all families with children between 8 and 18 have the television set on during meals; those parents may be eating with their kids, but that doesn't mean they have anything to say to them.
Parents today find themselves in a culture of ambivalence about parental authority. An ethos of self-esteem and child empowerment encourages children to make decisions not just about whether they prefer apple juice or orange juice, but about whether to attend religious school or what time to go to bed at night. Last year, several of my daughter's fifth-grade classmates even chose to wear pajamas to school one day -- with their parents' blessing.
These ideas clash with what has been the most important task of parents in any society: to shape their children's character and make them responsible members of a wider community. No wonder a 1997 report from Public Agenda found that parents describe feeling "tentative and uncertain in matters of authority" or that therapists like Evelyn Bassoff of Colorado report hearing parents say they feel "mean" and "guilty" when disciplining their children.
It is telling that in a Y.M.C.A. survey released at the conference, 61 percent of parents said that they frequently talked to their children about values and beliefs, but only 41 percent of teenagers reported having had such conversations.
In fact, not all of the research findings about family togetherness are as compelling as the White House's grand announcement implied. It is true that more than 40 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds who do not eat dinner regularly with their parents have been involved in serious fights. But so have close to 30 percent of the kids who do eat with their parents. And though 38 percent of the 15- and 16-year-olds who don't have close relationships with their parents have been suspended from school, so have over a quarter of those teens who do report close relationships.
Much has been made of recent polls that show a desire among teenagers to spend more time with their mothers and fathers. But unless parents are willing to act like parents, family dinners every night of the week will not offer much nourishment to American adolescents.