WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED TO FAMILY DINNERS?
by olivia black
Dining rooms are no longer included in many new home designs. We don’t have one. As a matter of fact, kitchen tables are being replaced with sit-down kitchen islands or counters. The fact is after thousands of years of dining together as a family, the dynamic has shifted away from communal dining. Perhaps we’re too busy or our schedules don’t line up. Maybe there are too many distractions. Or, social media has replaced real person-to-person contact, and we’ve collectively decided it’s no longer important to connect with our families in person.
Honestly, and you’re probably thinking this too, but I’ll say it anyway – all three of those excuses suck.
There is no substitute for talking with someone in person. You can’t see, hear, or sense subtle changes in attitude, emotion, color, and a myriad of other things over any electronic communication means. No, not even Facetime gives you the entire picture. As a parent or caregiver, it’s critical that you assess the entire situation with all the tools you can muster to define the entire story. People, and especially adolescent children, famously hide critical pieces of their stories to avoid criticism, ridicule, or punishment. Real human contact offers a whole different level of intuition, which you can then use to elicit the whole story.
Gather up the troops and set up a family dinner! Even if it’s inconvenient for the masses because someone has a late class or game, it’s still important to connect with your people in-person. Meet them somewhere near the odd-person-out’s destination. Family dinners seven nights a week is optimal, but obviously impossible or unfortunately unrealistic in today’s world. Strive for as many in-person meetings as your family can attend or will tolerate. You’ll get some pushback, because that’s the norm, but insist on at least once a week. It’s important. Your family dinners will serve as the catalyst to recreate your F.U. Don’t admit this, but your family dinners are a clever excuse for family meetings.
Yes, it’s gonna be weird at times. Many families haven’t dined together in several years. That’s normal. You’ll need things to talk about. Your conversations need to be inspired, interesting and non-offensive. It’s your fam – you probably know what presses their buttons. So, don’t press them! And there’ll be the occasional narcissist teenaged boy who’s angry he can’t play Call of Duty for an hour or so, as he’s done during dinner for the past 18 months. He’ll get over it. Eventually.
Establish the ground rules. No name-calling. No bullying. No raising voices. No food fights. No religion or politics, unless you’re all on the same page, and that’s your typical oral fare. AND NO PORTABLE ELECTRONIC DEVICES. THIS MEANS YOU TOO, MOM AND DAD. Your goal is to make it natural, comfortable, and inviting so everyone participates.
If you’re not a gifted speechwriter or linguist, realize most of us aren’t either. So script your conversations like they do in Hollywood! Heck, most reality shows at least have an outline. Don’t be afraid to use written notes or index cards to fill in any uncomfortable silences. Heck, post the categories on a shared document, and allow the fam to gather their thoughts before dinner. The important thing to do is to get everyone speaking about their lives, their dreams, their problems, their plans, and their desires. Don’t forget the little ones.
It is during these family meetings when you will begin to uncover things that you can discuss as a family that will help make everyone's life better. You may discover that your children are being bullied online. You might find out that someone's having problems with math class and desperately needs a tutor. You may begin to suspect your daughter is having sleepovers with someone other than her girlfriends like she's told you. There are many things that you can read into while meeting face to face with your children – not to get them in trouble, but to be aware of what they're up to so you can prepare to intervene when necessary. Information is key. Don’t confront them in front of the fam, or you’ll risk them clamming up permanently. Let it rest for a day or so, and privately discuss any follow-up questions later.
Additionally, you can ensure that they're eating a well-balanced meal and getting the nutrition that their little bodies need. Avoiding pre-packaged meals, takeout, and pizza may be better for your waistline too. If you can arrange it, have the entire family get involved in preparing the meal. It's a great family bonding experience and a way to make sure that everybody gets what they want. It’s kind of the best of both worlds – F.U. and good food! However, if time is a luxury in your situation, take out or pizza is better than no family dinner at all.
We started doing this on Sundays a few years back. I’ll admit, the first few dinners were awkward. Today, the entire fam looks forward to Sunday dinner.
Looking for more family time? My kids were really upset that as a result of the success of our dinner ritual, I decided that driving time is family time, too. The radio is an excuse for you or your kids not to talk. “Mom, can we play music?” “I would much rather hear about what’s going on in your life.” Driving in a silent car is quite strange at first but try it for a while. It’s kind of relaxing. Let your inner dialogue work itself out without all that extraneous noise.
And never neg on your kids when they talk to you, or they’ll never open up to you again. Find the optimist inside, even if it nearly kills you. Praise them, but be honest. Offer constructive criticism when necessary, and always without being demeaning.