Could the breakdown of the American family be traced to the dinner table?


According to a Gallup poll, it's at least a sign. A poll released Jan. 20 showed that only 28 percent of American families with children eat together seven nights a week -- a drop of 10 points from three years ago.


While seven nights a week may be a lofty goal, the poll also showed

that fewer families -- 75 percent -- are meeting a smaller standard of at least four nights week. That is a decline from recent years: In 1997, 83 percent of Americans ate together at least four nights a week; in 2001 it was 79 percent.


Tom Elliff, an Oklahoma pastor who chairs the Southern Baptist Convention's Council on Family Life, said that time around the dinner table is important.


"It's around the table that you learn a lot of the graces of a

civilized society," said Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist

Church in Del City, Okla. "You learn a little bit about manners. You learn how to listen to one another."


The Gallup poll showed that the percentage of families eating together three nights or less a week has increased: from 16 percent in 1997, to 22 percent in 2001 to 24 percent today.


Communication within families is "very important," Elliff said, adding that a meal provides family members an opportunity to talk and to learn about one another without any distractions -- no television, no video games, no telephone.


"One of the greatest evidence of the disintegration of our culture is that families no longer take the time to eat together," he said. "There are many, many factors that come into play, obviously. Many homes have single parents or both parents are working."


Elliff and his wife Jeannie raised four children. Realizing early in their marriage that school and church activities would prevent a

regular family dinner, they decided to have their family meal at

breakfast. So every day, Monday through Friday, the parents and

children ate together at 7 a.m.


The family's faith played an integral part: Elliff read a verse and

prayed. Attendance was a "fairly rigid" rule, he said.