Thanksgiving is the most celebrated dinner of the year: A ritual joining together.
Manners Are About Intimacy, Not Forks.
Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper upbringing, a sound set of manners--and witnesses.
Manners are About Respect and Kindness
Manners and etiquette go back to the days of chivalry. Remember King Arthur’s Court? King Arthur decided that he and his knights would sit at a round table as an expression of respect for each other. King Arthur and his knights resolved to set a standard of behavior. Knights were expected to be gallant, honorable, generous, and courteous. Valor, bravery, honesty, protecting the weak, and treating foes benevolently were valued. The ideal knight was known by his gracious courtesy and high-minded consideration, especially toward women. Chivalrous and courtly manners allowed people to get to know each other better, romance each other, and be kind to one another.
Manners are indeed about being kind and not about forks. They are about creating intimacy. Not the stuff of sex, but the stuff that makes you care for and respect someone, whether he be a parent, child, friend, or lover.
What does this have to do with today’s families? Lots, because children imitate the way men and women behave with each other. The let-it-all-hang-out mode of expression has become the name of the game, and it’s regrettable. Today, language is often crude, behavior seems to have little form, and rituals may have become a thing of the past.
The Swedish Dinner Party
Many years ago I had an experience that still stands out in my mind. It was the 1960s and I was newly married to a man from Sweden. He took me home to meet his family and told me that there would be a dinner party held in our honor. Hearing this, I really wasn’t very excited. In Europe, the Swedes were known as having the most inflexible code of manners, and I saw them as an uptight people. Yet this first dinner, formal as it was, created the highest level of closeness with my new family that I have ever experienced in my life. Its mannerly behavior, allowed me to develop a bond with my husband’s family in just a few hours.
Before the dinner party, my new in-laws carefully explained the proper way of skölling, which is a form of toasting. They showed me how to raise my glass and look directly into the eyes of the person skölling me. They taught me how to hold the glass and not to drink for as long as the person was talking. With all their instructions about proper behavior, I quietly expected to be bored by the whole event. After all, these people were complete strangers to me.
The night of the party arrived. We were supposed to be there at 8:00 p.m., but I assumed I had some leeway. I soon learned otherwise, when my father-in-law came knocking at the bathroom door to tell me we were leaving.
“But I haven’t finished putting on my makeup yet,” I protested. I had applied mascara to only one eye. “We are leaving now, “ he said again, this time turning to go down the stairs and out the door. “But I’m the guest of honor!” I wailed. Nonetheless, he went down to the car and would have left without me if I hadn’t gone racing out, mascara wand in hand. I nearly blinded myself trying to put mascara on my other eye in the car, and once again, silently railed against the Swedes and their rigid set of rules.
At exactly 8 p.m., we were at Aunt Ellen’s house. Seventeen family members, ranging from age nine to ninety, were there to greet me. Cocktails lasted precisely half an hour; at 8:30 sharp, we were called to the dinner table.
I was overwhelmed by the elaborate table setting. There were five glasses to the right and five forks to the left of each plate. “How long will I have to sit here?” I wondered as the meal began. I felt lucky at least that one of the rules was that newlyweds were allowed to sit together, so I had my husband’s coaching to guide me through what I thought would be an ordeal.
One by one, each member of the family rose and skölled me, welcoming me to the family. As part of their welcome, they told stories about the family and my husband’s place in it. I learned that my new grandfather had been one of the few Swedes licensed to navigate the English Channel at full sail, and that my husband was the favorite sibling among all the small children when he was growing up. He had also been a famous soccer player. Even the children had some special stories to add.
As the meal progressed, I began to feel more and more affection for this family that had gone to such lengths to offer this ritual of welcoming me. As I listened to story after story, I was overwhelmed by feelings of closeness and warmth. I had gotten to know them in such a way that even as I think back now, decades later, a tenderness for them comes over me. The Vikings, who established these rituals long, long ago, knew a thing or two about establishing family bonds.
Family Dinners Create Closeness
You don’t need a Swedish dinner party to create closeness in your own family. Even if your schedules are hectic, or you aren’t accustomed to sitting down together, you can still work
out ways to bring the ritual of family dinners back into your home. Here’s how to begin:
Establish a schedule of family dinners to be eaten together. This may mean once a week, on Sundays, or three times a week, every other night. The important thing is to schedule a specific time for dinner. Make it clear that everyone is expected to be there, and establish some ground rules. These should conform to your own family’s needs, of course, but here are some good ones to consider:
• The television is off.
• Books, magazines, and headphones are put away.
• The answering machine is on and turned to low. (If you
don’t have one, buy one for this purpose. Otherwise, take
the phone off the hook.)
• Family members can have guests only with the permission
of the person cooking and the head of the household.
• Guests are expected to perform the same tasks as the
person who invited them, unless they are honored guests
like a grandmother or a boss.
• Say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
• Be kind to one another in word and manner.
• Do little acts of kindness for one another.
• Help when someone needs assistance.
• Let others know how they can help.
• Respect one another.
• If differences get in the way, learn about them.
• Respect one another’s differences.
• Talk to each other the way you want your children to talk.
• Treat each other with respect.
• Use respectful language when talking to each other.
• Say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
• Allow others to finish their sentences before talking.
• Respond to adults with full sentences.
• Look others in the eye when speaking to them.
• Be on time.
• Call if you will be more than fifteen minutes late.
• Inform others when you plan to depart and return.
Greetings and Introductions
• Any good etiquette book has lots in it on this topic. But
does your family own one? Most do not. I understand
etiquette books are now back “in.” (For the longest time
they were “out.”) Buy one. They help take the anxiety
out of new situations.
• It is important to teach children about introductions. Other-wise, introductions can be uncomfortable, or just not done.
The proper method is to present the junior person to the
senior person. So if young Marvin has Sam over to study,
he presents Sam saying, “Mom, this is my friend, Sam.
Sam, this is my mom.”
Families need to decide who will answer the phone and how to speak on the phone and how to call someone to the phone. (Hint: The correct answer is not to scream. Get an intercom or walk to the person.)
Parties and Visits with Friends and Relatives
When my son was little, I used to let him open the door to greet guests and show them where to hang their coats. As he got older, he passed trays, served beverages, or showed people where the bar was. He didn’t have to stay at a party for long, but that time taught him how to greet and interact with adults.
Design a protocol for visiting or receiving guests. I think it’s excellent social training for a child to be asked to go and shake hands with family members and friends. Only after properly greeting the adults does he get to go off and play with the other children.
Rule 30. Create Family Rituals. They Will Be Times Remembered.
A family without rituals is no family at all.
We all create “rituals” in our daily life. Think about arriving at the office, going to bed, or getting ready for an event. You generally have certain ritualized behaviors at these times, a sequence of steps you customarily take. Family 2000 often suffers from a loss of family customs. We need to reestablish customs and rituals because children need predictable patterns.
Rituals—and the memories and teachings they evoke—make for family. Rituals are something we look forward to. Rituals are something we remember with fondness. Children learn from family rituals.
The Brown Family--“The Good News and the Bad News”
When I was in college I knew an executive with the Ford Motor Company named Mr. Brown who was constantly away on business. More often than not, he didn’t make it home for dinner. When he was home, however, he didn’t want anything to get in the way of his touching base with each family member. Out of this need grew a table ritual called “The Good News and the Bad News.” Mr. Brown would begin the ritual by telling everyone about something good that had occurred in his life since he’d last seen them. Then he’d relate something that wasn’t good. For instance, the good news during one of my visits was how he’d gotten the go-ahead on plans to sell Ford cars in Germany; the bad news, he confessed, was that he hadn’t handled a meeting with a union leader very well.
The conversation would then move to Mrs. Brown, who would relate her good and bad news. Each member of the family had a chance to describe what was going on in his or her life, commanding the attention and interest of everyone at the table. No one member of the family monopolized the dinner table discussions; everyone was given a turn, and each turn came in a previously established order, from oldest to youngest. When the whole family was going to eat together, the kids knew just what to expect. They would have to reflect on their lives for at least a couple of seconds before going to the table—because their dad wouldn’t let them off the hook.
Nor were guests excluded from this ritual. At first, I was nervous about saying anything. But Mr. Brown insisted, so, after I told them about something good that had happened to me, I confessed that my economics professor was boring me to death, which was a big problem since I was thinking about majoring in economics. Mr. Brown observed that, in general, economics is boring, and that most economists are boring. He later got back to me with phone numbers of other economists I could speak to so that I could decide if that was what I really wanted to do.
While the Browns’ bad news and good news ritual may seem too hokey or structured to some, there are some things about it that every family might want to keep in mind. Most important, the Browns’ dinners were predictable. The Brown children liked this. The ritual worked particularly well for this family because there wasn’t a lot of time to establish the much-needed family intimacy. The less time a family has together, the more systematized it needs to be in order not to lose precious hours to confusion.