That was the standard question when arriving home from Grammar School, as it was called in the days of yore. Getting the menu was followed by a second question, “What’s for dessert?” That could be answered in a variety of ways, but often it was not being served that night. One thing was certain: dinner would be on the table at 6 PM and the family would all be present and accounted for.
My, how things have changed! Rare indeed is the family that has everyone seated for dinner and many are the reasons. Make your own list, but these events would surely be among them: soccer practice, karate, gymnastics, volleyball games, dance class, tutoring time, music lessons, band practice . . . you get the idea. Add to that the transportation needs for the kids involved, carpooling, and the rush to get to PTA, or a myriad of other nighttime meetings; Dinner time now has been reduced to a transient and incomplete event that no one will remember as a meaningful time for the family to be together.
Even on the rare occasion when all the family is present if you happen to observe what is actually happening at the table, conversation of a meaningful sort is scant. More often than not heads are bent forward and it is not in the saying of grace but rather the time of the dancing thumbs on the iPhone. This, too often, includes the parents.
In thinking back to times when the chaos of the present day was in the far distant future, one may be hard pressed to recall that important dialogue was present. In many families the fare was meager and soon consumed; the kids were off to do homework and the parents could sit around and discuss things that had happened in their day. The opportunity for sharing was present, even if it was not utilized.
I recall families that set about to make the dinner hour more meaningful. Leo Buscaglia, a motivational speaker from the University of Southern California, tells of his childhood suppertime, as it was called in his home. All the children, of whom there were many, would be asked by their father what they had learned that day. There would be much scrambling for an answer as hands were being washed but when all were seated, everyone was prepared.
That seemed a quaint idea when I heard about it during one of Dr. Buscaglia’s presentations. It had a very short half-life with my family. One of my professors took it several steps further. Each of his adolescent children was supposed to prepare a discussion piece for the dinner table on a topic of his/her choice. I never met any of the aforementioned kids, but they probably lived up to the expectations of their brilliant parents.
There must be a happy medium between the extremes of required preparation and controlled chaos with iPhones in full use. Communal eating has many iterations but it should a time of sharing more than just food. It can be a time of thoughtful listening, passing more than the potatoes as ideas or events are shared. It formerly represented a time when everyone set aside a few minutes to pay attention to one another.
One of the biggest surprises I had was during a presentation to a group of gifted high school seniors. I had been talking about the daily life of a physician and in the Q&A session, one girl asked, “It sounds like you’re really busy. Do you ever see your children?” I answered truthfully and said that, with only the rare exception of an emergency, I always had dinner with the family. I realized how important and perhaps rare that was in their families, when the class broke into spontaneous applause.
Think about it. Those minutes spent with the family dinner go far beyond what is served, and can be a time that real sharing is experienced. Collectively, dinner time can be filled with teachable moments that will be remembered far beyond the brief years children spend at home.