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Life Lessons Around The Dinner Table

What happens around the dining table is just as important as what’s on the plate. This month we pull up a seat with the Smith family.

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Family Dinner

Each week, the New York Times Sunday business section includes an interview with an executive. And nearly each week, those business leaders talk about the lessons learned around their family’s dinner table. Thrift, honesty and the pleasure of a hard day’s work. “On time is late”; “say yes to new opportunities.”

We’ve been in the family dinner business for about 19 or so years, and we aren’t so sure we’ve provided CEO-worthy life lessons. We’re more Don Rickles than Dale Carnegie. When the kids were young, a lot of what we talked about at dinner could be described as “Mom and Dad remember comedy.” We made a video of our son Wyatt at the table when he was about three doing the old vaudeville scene “You must pay the rent/I can’t pay the rent,” with a slice of yellow pepper as his evil mustache slash damsel-in-distress hair ribbon. The kids have still never seen “Animal House,” but they can recite the “See if you can guess what I am now” scene with perfect Belushi inflection. Surely there’s some value in that?

We’ve been in the family dinner business for about 19 or so years, and we aren’t so sure we’ve provided CEO-worthy life lessons. We’re more Don Rickles than Dale Carnegie.

Then there’s that old dinnertime favorite, “Kids complain about their perfect lives.” (And its predictable reaction, “Parents tell them they have no idea how good they have it.”) Teachers giving homework, coaches making them run laps, school policies, Texas driving laws — the specific offenders may change, but our children believing that the world is unfair and stacked against them in some form or fashion has been a sad constant.

Then, of course, there’s plain old household business. Did you remember to look for your jacket at school? Did you talk to your science teacher about that project? Do you have a lot of homework tonight? There are lots of days where dinner is the only chance we have to get anything out of them. And we are REALLY tired of replacing lost jackets.

In the past few years, family dinners have morphed into a movement. We’ve got family dinner challenges and “world’s largest family dinner” days and reams of studies and news stories about its benefits. Family dinner evangelist Laurie David describes her experiences at the table as “cheerful, significant and meaningful.” That seems like a high bar to clear on a Wednesday night, doesn’t it?

Around our table, a more likely topic of conversation is “Great band names, but not really.” Here’s how it starts: someone uses an adjective and a noun. Fragile Bully. Precious Falafel. Giant Sand. Evan responds by saying “That would make a great band name.” Note: none of these would actually make great band names. This is like a Zen koan for our kids to unravel. (Bonus points to anyone who knew that Giant Sand was a real band! A real, tragically named band.)

One friend of ours doesn’t believe in family dinners. They sit down together when they can, but often, her (teenaged) boys are left alone with no planned meal. She believes those nights instill important self-sufficiency skills. After all, they do need to know how to prepare food for
themselves soon enough. And if she makes regular time to be with her kids in lots of other ways — mornings, after school, weekends —then why should she get all hung up on dinner?

Well, yes. As every parent knows car rides are also a great opportunity for conversations about what’s really on a kid’s mind. Or games of catch. Or jigsaw puzzles. Or walking the dog. And yet our friend reports that she has limited her time with other kids’ parents because they give her so much grief over the dinner issue. “One mom has even gone so far as to ‘jokingly’ tell my kids that CPS was going to rescue them someday,” she said.

Come on, people. Dinner conversation is like any conversation: sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s dull, sometimes it’s intended for no other purpose than the quotidian management of young lives. And bad things—like depression, anxiety or addiction—can still happen, no matter how many family meals you sit down to.

Sure, we’ve had a few great dinner conversations over the years. Maybe even some that would meet Laurie David’s standards. One memorable evening a few years ago we got on the subject of what it means to be an American. “Guns, and fried stuff and the walkers that fat people use,” was Wyatt’s answer, and while that sentiment betrays a dark cynicism about our nation’s character and habits, we also had to applaud its insight and specificity. Especially from an 11-year-old.

We hope that family dinners with our kids taught them that humor diffuses tension, that they shouldn’t be wary about asking for help and that they can persevere through even the most challenging relationships. But it’s also possible that all we did was expose them to creative swearing and Evan’s breathy and self-satisfied impression of Wiz Khalifa’s mother on the phone (don’t ask).

Maybe they’re turning out OK in spite of us, not because of us. Either way, everyone’s got to eat.

Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2016