Intentional Living. It sounds like a great name for an e-book or a self-help seminar but WOW is it harder in real life. I intend to do many things within the vacuum of my mind, until that bombardment we call reality manifests, crashing through my best intentions! Crises, schedules, and too many commitments often get in the way of my ideals. I will speak with some authority when I say that in spite of the chaos, there are some things that our family has not compromised. Dinnertime is a biggie.
When I began comprising the list of why family meals are sacred to us, I realized that nearly all of my best reasons fit neatly into two main categories: intentional living and education. The education piece applies because we have children in our home, but the intentional living aspect of family mealtime applied for our first (and childless) 8 years of marriage just as it applies to our Family Zoo now. After the kids are gone, it will be every bit as relevant (if not more so).
I’m convinced that this list is not exhaustive. I have that sensation I’m forgetting something immensely important—like whether I locked the door before leaving on that trip. Could you help me out and list the ones I forgot in the comments section?
1) A non-verbal way to say, “I love you. You are important.” Family mealtime puts on the screeching brakes of an overly-scheduled life, makes eye contact, and says, “You are more important than my agenda.”
2) Verbal ways to say “I love you.” If you are familiar with Gary Chapman’s “The 5 Love Languages” you know that people hear love in different ways; some people hear love through quality time, some hear it through words of affirmation. These both come naturally at a family mealtime. Just as the silent action of stopping to engage around the table speaks love, so do the words spoken while you are sitting there.
Just as the silent action of stopping to engage around the table speaks love, so do the words spoken while you are sitting there.
3) To Stay Connected. Do you know what happened in 3rd period at school today or in your spouse’s workday? Has anyone in your family looked at anyone else in the eyes once within the last 24 hours– or has everything come through texting or screaming up the stairs?
My house growing up was even more chaotic than my current family life is even now with the flurry of activities, responsibilities, and friendships. When it comes to memories of family time from my own past experiences, dinnertime and vacations are the only things that really stand out to my sister or to me. In fact, she once said that for all of the things she does differently as a parent, mealtime is non-negotiable in her home, a tradition she inherited from our parents. It was how—with six years’ difference between us—we even felt we knew each other.
4) To impart values. Sometimes we invite a neighbor over for dinner to exercise hospitality. Sometimes, the conversation turns to a “teachable moment” stemming from the engaging conversation. The individual value of a family meal might seem insignificant, but the collective value of what is imbued is immeasurable.
5) Family identity. You might even say family loyalty is one of the greatest results. Everything from a casual conversation to cracking jokes—these things help define us as a collective whole. I want my children to associate the word “family” with “warmth,” “love,” and “belonging.” If a child can see himself or herself as belonging to a collective whole, they are less likely to seek out a sense of belonging in unhealthy places. Dinner (and occasional roadtrips) seem to be the safe environment for being oneself even while developing that collective identity.
Teaching manners—this is the most frustrating one to me. I’m thinking I’m not alone. I just saw a marketing campaign for a national pizza chain that said (something to the effect of) “Dinner together isn’t always perfect. But it is together.” My son laughed at that and shrieked, “Whoever wrote that must’ve been to our house!”
Slurping. Gulping. Back of the sleeve for a napkin. Tipping the chair back. Licking the plate (I’m cringing…). Dropping food on the floor with no intention of bending over to pick it up. Two of my three children are currently banned from eating without an adult present because—word on the street—they are the partners-in-crime who used an entire jar of organic ground pepper in a one week timespan. The informer said that they thought it was “funny” to dump it out.
Okay, I think I just ruined this whole blog post.
You might be re-thinking this family mealtime thing now, huh? When we have meals as a family and a kid is writing his name in the mashed potatoes…
I can redirect him, correct him, and teach him the proper behavior at the table.
I can model etiquette, manners, and graceful movements.
Do you think that these poor behaviors would magically disappear without that guidance? I’ve worked in way too many group settings crawling with children to agree with that notion. I once witness an entire carpeted gym floor vanish after 70 kids ate popcorn for a movie night. I asked my kids about it and they said, “it was hard to watch the movie when you keep getting hit in the back of the head with popcorn.” So yes—for as frustrating as the poor manners of young children may be, they will not fester into the appalling behavior of older children or teenagers. Ever. Not On My Watch.
Teaching conversation: Kids learn by modeling. Healthy relationships do not come naturally—if they did the ratio would be in favor of healthy relationships (call me a cynic, but…).
Listening is a learned skill.
Asking questions properly is another learned skill.
Starting a conversation and knowing when to end it…yup, learned skills.
Not every region of our country is migrating towards digital obtuseness at the same speed, but there are entire sections of our country in which children are given a handheld device and told to keep quiet. While traveling a few years ago, we had 2 servers in 2 consecutive restaurants comment, “We noticed you didn’t have your kids on a tablet during your meal—and they were GOOD!” This warrants mentioning? Twice in a row? You have the opportunity to build your children (or grandchildren) up, to present them with skills that cannot adequately be learned in a text book but only by positive life experiences. You can teach them the art of conversation and thus, the art of positive relationship-building just by sitting down once a day and asking, “so, how was your day?”
Teaching health & nutrition: The temptation to “grab a snack” when you are on the go is how such a rich country as the U.S.A. has become such a malnourished one. Corn Syrup is not a major food group. Beyond the snack-grabbing, we often wait too long to eat and find ourselves in the drive-through line. Am I right? I’ve lived that life.
So what have I forgotten? Family mealtime is a lifestyle choice, and it is a deliberate one. Our culture will pull every single family member in other directions unless the leadership establishes otherwise.
So tell me: 1) Did you grow up with family mealtimes?
2) Do you believe in their value or do they seem old fashioned?
3) What has your family decided about them?