Several reputable columnists I follow have recently drummed up the perennial theme of the benefit of the family dinnertime tradition. There seems to be a belief that we can only succeed as respectable, honest, and moral humans if young people break bread with their parents on a regular basis, which means a minimum of several times a week at a defined time. One columnist went so far as to recommend implementation of what sounded like family board meetings: writing a mission statement, creating a definition of core values particular to their clan, appointing weekly chairpersons, and engaging in communal activities (practicing how to climb out onto the roof in case of fire) to create bonding.
I have to admit that I burst into laughter after reading her column. I’m sorry. She suggested purchasing a family gavel to command our offspring’s attention, as in “Hey, kid, I’m talking here (thwack!) You’ll get your turn when I hand over the communal mallet to you next week, but until then, zip it and listen up!” Was she serious? Maybe it was wishful thinking on the columnist’s part, but it also sounded like Utopian satire.
I always thought Utopia was a pie in the sky sort of bucolic fantasy island dreamt up by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century. In fact, his work of fiction has been considered satire, what with the elimination of lawyers and private property, promotion of slavery, and encouragement of a welfare state. Everybody works (farming, for the most part), so there is no unemployment, meals are taken in a communal dining hall, and premarital sex is punishable by a lifetime of celibacy. It is a good real-life example for teenagers.
Then again, there are those times when I think society is coming closer to perfection.
A month or so ago, I received an email from a local theater company thanking me for attending their production of Book of Mormon. They hoped the experience was special, and that we’d be back again soon to enjoy another performance in their facility. In the meantime, would I, could I complete a survey? The letter’s polite tone had caught my eye. It was so heartfelt, except for the fact that we hadn’t been to the show, nor had we purchased tickets. I emailed Dr. K, asking him, “Did we forget about this? Oops!”
I was still puzzled when, the very next day, there in my inbox was the real “oops,” a blush-faced apology from the theater, admitting that they had made a mistake. Inadvertently Utopian? Possibly. An example of what we would like real life to be? It certainly would be great if everyone were that polite.
So, back to dinner with the family. Do you truly think that the best quality time with your children can be achieved by enforced participation at mealtime and the thwack of a mallet? When I reflect on the best conversations with my kids, ever, they always occurred in the oddest of places, at the most unexpected of times. The same goes for spouses. Whenever you push someone to “just open up, already, and share your innermost thoughts,” you don’t always like what spills out. They may be tired from work or school, or someone else has been pushing their buttons that day, and they don’t need one more. Have you ever requested a pleasant response, and received an avalanche of anger? I know I’ve been guilty of unleashing a blizzard on a bad day if unexpectedly triggered. We’re all human.
I enjoy meals with my family, but only if they want to be with me. If they don’t, it’s just painful.
We have a fruitful tradition of Dr. K and I biking to breakfast on a Sunday morning (weather permitting), and the kids will work out, and then drive to meet us. Everyone gets exercise, everyone’s schedules are respected, and everyone enjoys sharing thoughts and ideas. When the kids were younger, the best conversations I had with them was in the car on the ride home from school, when their day tumbled out from their brains as they sat, obscure in the backseat, out of my range of vision. It was a relief for them, a chance at reconnection for me. And then there are the midnight conferences, the ones where the troubles won’t go away, when the angst nibbles our fragile emotions. That’s when it’s more important to climb up on the end of someone’s bed, and just listen.
Kids these days have so much pressure to succeed: in school, in sports, in developing relationships. Time is precious; there is often too little of it. Moreover, with social media spotlighting what used to be private, there is a lot of strain. They know the entire world is watching. They need to be allowed a comfort zone so they are ready to share, on their terms.
Shouldn’t home be a haven for rejuvenation? Shouldn’t it provide a shelter to become reinvigorated so they can go out and conquer the world? How can children do that if a family is run like a business, monitored by the thwack of a mallet?
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @. Life inspired. Vodka tempered.