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A Simple Chalkboard Helps One Family Check In With Each Other

This Month's Dinner Conversation happens in the Gold Family's Dining Nook, where a simple chalkboard takes a place of prominence and drives conversation


Dinner Conversation

My wife and I grew up around very different dinner tables. There were religious, geographic and cultural differences. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

She grew up with the television on during dinner. Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares followed W alter Cronkite while food was on the table. For me, the food was served with a heaping portion of serious conversation in the dining room, around a large table. My parents would talk about their days at work. No topic was off limits, from apartheid to Ronald Reagan.

When my wife and I started our family and our family dinners, we did what came naturally. W e mixed andmerged. W e created our own traditions.

Our dinner table is right next to the kitchen, an informal breakfast nook small enough that our sons can kick each other under the table. And do they ever. Some days, dinner takes on the feel of a subterranean kickboxing match.

The biggest rule of dinner is to shut off all electronic distractions. That means my evening news on the radio, all phones — and the television. However, some rules are meant to be broken. Exceptions are made for certain games: the twice-a-year Cowboys-Eagles showdown, a meaningful Spurs playoff contest or when the US or Mexican national soccer team is playing.

Dinner conversations tend toward the lighter side. My wife and I don’t talk much about our jobs. For her, that evolved from previous work as a school social worker. We didn’t want to bombard the kids with a daily dose of her work with families in crisis. My work as a writer and journalist focuses on energy. My kids know more about crude oil than your average Wall Street commodities trader. Recently, I said I had an interesting story from work. My older son fixed me with a withering stare. “ Is it an energy story?” he asked. Did I mention that he’s a teenager?

Just as the no-television rule is occasionally disregarded, sometimes our conversations turn serious. We don’t shy away from any topic when it arises. One day, we discussed a suicide at a school where we knew somestudents. Recently, the presidential election has made several appearances.

More typically, our dinner conversations function as a time to check in with each other. Our lives can be hectic, a tightly choreographed dance of comings and goings. Dinner is when we connect.

Looming over the family dinner table is the family chalkboard. Not just any chalkboard. The chalkboard.

Some days call for that particular form of parental torture known as the persistent follow-up question.

Divided into seven horizontal sections, one for each day of the week, it contains all critical information about the comings and goings of every family member. It is part collective memory. It is part split-flap train station display.

Today it looks, thankfully, kind of empty. It is summertime. During the school year, it is so crammed with information that it can be difficult to read. Since we put it up two years ago, the chalkboard has developed its own shorthand language. Until someone invents a real-life W easley Family Clock, it will do.

The chalkboard looms large not only over the table, but also over family dinner. Because it is where the dinner conversation usually begins. Comings and goings are discussed, so everyone is on the same page. My wife and I remind each other of needs and commitments. (Birthday party this weekend. Are you getting a present? I need to work late; can you pick up from after-school care?)

Dinner conversations usually begin with a question:“ How was school today?”

The response is often grunted and monosyllabic.

“ What did you do at school today?”

This is met with shrugs, more grunts and polysyllabic responses that are no more satisfying than the monosyllabic ones. “ I don’t remember.”

Some days call for that particular form of parental torture known as the persistent follow-up question. “ What are you learning in science? W ho did you sit with? W hat did you play at recess?”

Don’t tell our kids, but the chalkboard is a secret weapon when school questions fall flat. “ Where are you going on the field trip on Thursday?” All right. That worked.

With every passing year, the family dinner becomes slightly more endangered. Two, and soon three, nights a week, the spreading demands of soccer practice encroach on dinner’s natural habitat. Late arriving work emails can intrude. I confess sometimes I break the no-phones-at-the-table rule. Must. Read. A. Quick. Email. (Sigh.)

The important thing is to protect the family dinner against these forces. Even if th e answers are monosyllabic, it is when we all sit together. It binds us together. W e’re on a shared family voyage for a few more years, until the kids move out and eventually find their own tables and create their own dinner traditions.

How was your day? W hat did you do? We’re listening.

We’re interested. And there’s really only one rule that counts. No kicking. Seriously.

Russell Gold is an author, journalist and energy fellow at the University of Texas. Laura Gold is a clinical social worker and Prevention Services program manager for Austin Travis County Integral Care. They have two sons, Isaiah and Joaquin Hernandez-Gold, and a dog, Frida.

Read more from the Makers + Industry Issue | July 2016