In his book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks describes a weekly gathering in which he participates where a family opens their home to teens who’re having a rough time. Some have been homeless; some have been in the foster care system; many have experienced violence. Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson, of Washington D.C., welcome about 25-30 kids just to join them for dinner on Thursday nights. A teen may be sorting through an unplanned pregnancy or celebrating passing the GED exam. One had graduated from barber college. Yet another told the group that although she’s 21, she hadn’t sat at a dinner table since she was eleven.
But the dinner table is the key technology of social intimacy here. . . I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a dinner table.David Brooks, The Second Mountain, 61
Brooks goes on to describe programs in America which are turning our country around. Wait! What? Brooks thinks that dinner has the potential to turn things around? He quotes one community organizer as saying that he has NEVER seen a program turn a life around. . . only a relationship can do that.
So here most parents-of-teens are, family life so busy, activities swirling, pressure to-go-to-do almost constant. And if that isn’t enough, there is the daily litany of dread: Does my kid spend too much time gaming? Are the kids in my kid’s group drinking too much? Having sex too soon? Is my kid’s low self-esteem going to undermine her/him? And, will they get into a good college? What have I left undone to help my kids be successful?
What does “SUCCESS” mean at your house anyway?
What if we realized that all the things we worry about as parents can be improved just by sitting down to regular dinners? Would you be surprised to learn that the U.S. ranks 23rd out of 25 countries when it came to the number of fifteen-year-olds who eat dinner with families “several times a week.” One study reported that American families eat together only 17% of the time even when everybody was home!
Considering my last blog, “A Case for Family Dinners,” let’s think about what might be going on which is so beneficial for kids. Several things come to mind:
- We actually lay eyes on one another, seeing how each is really doing; does he look tired? is she especially zippy today now that her test is over?
- We get the chance to hear social reports, who did what in gym today; and if we listen before we comment, we can often hear how our kids judge such activities (he’s SOOO immature; I can’t believe she DID that!)
- We have the potential to make the dinner table a don’t-talk-about-the-negatives time; in other words, save asking about test performance, grades, or homework being turned in until after dinner is done, away from the table.
- It can be a time to bring out the best in our family, to recall together that great vacation or the funniest thing about the last clan gathering. We can ask ourselves, “Does our conversation direct our attention to the good, the helpful, the positive?”
- We can create a time for sharing goals, wishes, fears, uncertainties…it works best if parents share theirs too.
- For sure, we can gently and progressively teach positive social skills (you might call them “manners” but I don’t think that’s a large enough term) like including others in the conversation, expressing appreciation to the cook, noting what we really enjoyed eating, helping clean up or prepare the meal.
- We can share observations about world situations, practicing respect and tolerance for those whose opinions differ from our own….
The list goes on and on. You can see why I say that to give up on dinner is to give away prime family-time real estate! In a world so fraught with conflict, so dedicated to using every advantage to get ahead, dinner time might become one of the few places where our kids can let their hair down, be at home.
We nominally gather around the table on Thursdays to eat, but in reality, we gather to feed a deeper hunger.David Brooks, The Second Mountain, 61
Would it be a good time to consider what else you might nurture at dinner time at your house?