The family meal is the altar of the family. It is the setting for the teaching of values, ethics, and a vision of self and the world. These meals eaten together need to occur at least three to four times a week (including perhaps a weekend brunch). Because they mostly occur at home, they don’t have to be expensive. Bad manners, television watching, and phone answering are all banned.
Only Mungo Eats at a Predictable Time
Maggie Hansen is an administrator in a busy metropolitan hospital. She’s up early every morning and when she gets home, around 5:00 p.m., she’s so hungry that she prepares dinner as soon as she walks through the door. Her husband Mark, a buyer in a major department store, is not home until at least 7:00 p.m., so she leaves some food for him in the oven while she eats alone. By the time Mark gets home, Maggie is relaxing in front of the TV, so he has dinner in the kitchen by himself, with his sales reports for company.
Their two kids, Gail, seventeen, and Thomas, fourteen, are both heavily involved in sports and often don’t show up for dinner at all. When they do, Gail likes to eat in her room while talking on the phone. Thomas doesn’t like what his mom watches on TV, so he puts on his headphones and blasts rap music while he eats.
The only member of the Hansen family who has an assigned time and place to eat is their dog Mungo, who always eats on the back porch after Jeopardy.
The scenario is all too familiar. All over the country, family members are eating at fast-food restaurants or at home alone using the TV, headphones, or newspapers as a substitute for family communication and emotional interaction. The Hansens are missing the chance to make their dinner table a family forum where they can discuss their day’s problems and triumphs, give each other support and advice, plan a family vacation, or propose something new:
• “Would you pretend I wasn’t your daughter if I got a nose ring?”
• “I really tried this semester but I still got a C in math. Do you think I can get a tutor?”
• “Your mom just got a great job offer in Virginia. How do you feel about moving?”
The dinner table becomes a place where everyone is free to voice opinions about family issues and where family decisions can be made. Moreover, the dinner hour doesn’t have to be solely devoted to personal concerns. You and your kids can talk about what you’ve read in the paper or seen on television. Literature, new movies, politics—all these things can and should be talked about at your family altar—the dinner table.
It’s not simply a matter of sharing opinions about the world, though that certainly is important. Conversations like this—and the context out of which they arise—are the crucible for a family’s identity and philosophy. What you believe—about the president, taxes, the environment, art, music, literature—will shape what and how your children think forever. And if they don’t have a chance to talk with you—free from the competing noise of the television set and the interruptions of the telephone—you are putting your most vital parental legacy at risk: the sharing of your own values and worldview. These are intangibles that only you can communicate to them and the family meal is the ideal setting.
Dinner: Reclaiming the Family Focal Point
The Seating Arrangement
Establish a seating arrangement and stick to it. Having a regular, established seating order at the table is predictable and reassuring for children. If everyone has his or her place, it banishes the emotional chaos that occurs when family members sit in different places every night.
One big mistake that many families make—especially when there is a second marriage—is that the couple sits next to each other in what we call “the honeymoon position.” This arrangement, with the couple alongside each other and the kids sitting opposite, looks like a face-off. It immediately sets up a polarization of “us” and “them.” Instead, the male and female heads of the household should sit at either end of the table. Usually it is the female at the food, closest to the kitchen, and the male at the head. This holds true even if you eat in the kitchen.
Remember those experiments you did in sophomore science with the metal shavings and the magnet’s north and south poles? The shavings immediately formed a force field around the two poles. So it is at the table. The male and female heads of household create a strong force field of unity that includes the children. The table is not dominated by children, but, as it needs to be, by adult leaders and teachers—two parents or parent and partner.
When it is just the family at dinner, children should sit according to age and gender. The oldest girl sits to the right of the male head of household, and the oldest boy on the female head’s right—unless there are babies or little ones who need help, in which case they sit on their biological parent’s right.
Should this be a dating situation, the female remains at the foot of the table and puts her male guest to her right. Or if it is his table, he sits at the head and puts her to his right—both sit as guest of honor. This does not hold true when they are a couple.
There must be a consistent place where children sit when they come to the table—even when they come on visitation. Places must remain the same. We find this order enormously important at meals, no matter what.