Author: has written 5275 posts for this blog.

Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
Return to: Homepage | Blog Index

27 Responses

  1. Lauren
    Lauren May 1, 2012 at 9:40 am |

    It never occurred to me that dinner-time arguments over, say, farming subsidies or the proper legal treatment of child molesters could create lasting wounds or ongoing anger.

    If you come from a politically split family like mine, politics are off the table until certain family members (*cough* DAD *cough*) are done eating and remove their plates and go to the other room to watch the game, because any discussion of politics does exactly lead to yelling, sarcasm, and hurt feelings. Especially electoral politics, especially in an election year, and especially, for whatever reason, at Thanksgiving.

    But my little family, when we have the time to sit down for a meal, which isn’t often, talks food, school, work, music, this annoying thing that someone said at the grocery store yesterday, gross bodily function, plans for the week, and more serious, esoteric stuff like religion, politics, and art. There is a lot of laughter at the table. I love these times. I find that it’s far more valuable to slip in the serious moral lessons to the kid when it’s natural — like when we watch 16 & pregnant together every week, I know, I know — than to try a dictate a parent-led debate over dinner.

  2. selkie
    selkie May 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |

    While it is not every dinner that we do together, we have always tried to sit down as a family and eat at least several times a week (despite working different shifts from my husband since we had kids); Sunday nights however, are a regular sit down night and even today, with 3 of my 4 kids out of the house, we all gather together with assorted friends, partners and strays and we have wonderfully lively dinners and discussion on everything from the castrati to Occupy to animal rights (as we always have everything from pure meat lovers to vegetarian to vegan and gluten-free diners – makes for a varied menu)… everything goes, voices do get raised, arguments passionate and at the end of it, it is satisfying, life-affirming and something which I feel brings us close. We have had these kind of dinners since the kids were tiny … and they were always shocked when visiting friends homes to find out not all kids were allowed to argue loudly and passionately … (but being of Irish background, there is no such thing as TOO loud or TOO passionate LOL)

  3. Wiley
    Wiley May 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |

    1. Jill, I like you.

    2. I live with a group of 20 somethings in a row house in DC. We didn’t know each other* before we moved in together. We’ve just had a roommate change (goodbye, N & A :( Hello E! :) ), but something that’s remained consistent over the more-than-year we’ve lived together is that we frequently share meals.

    We all have very different schedules. Especially when N, A, B, T, F and I were all living there (pre E), we had several people working evening shifts and several 9-5ers. Now we have two 9-5ers, one who works double shifts, one person who’s unemployed, and one person who runs her own mural business from our house. We aren’t always around at the same time, and yet we still often find time to, if not eat the same food, eat separate food together.

    DC was a very lonely place when I first moved here. I missed the instant community of college. Having regularly scheduled weekly dinners and various surprise!meals with my roommates (and next door neighbors who have become good friends, plus random friends and travelers each of us finds/invites) has been the best thing about living here and opened my eyes to how wonderful the city could be.

    We’ve had lengthy meals where we talked about interesting books, politics, art. We’ve had dinners where we all got high and I read “That Can Be My Next Tweet” out loud** and we laughed for hours. We’ve had dinners where the only conversation was moaning about how good the food was. We’ve had dinners in our back yard, crowding as many friends around our plastic picnic table as we could, passing around home-made sangria. We’ve had dinners where we cleaned the entire house beforehand and told polite stories to roommate parents and had our pictures taken by a congressman. We’ve had four course home-cooked meals using leftover Yuengling from a house party as a “theme”, and we’ve had cheap Chinese food watching Aliens on A’s giant TV. Every single time, no matter the circumstances, it has been incredibly healing and affirming.

    Wow, I did not mean to write a book. I guess I’m missing our recently migrated friends/roommates N & A. Luckily we’re going over to their new place for dinner tonight!

    *some of us knew some of us, but there were a lot of new connections
    **SERIOUSLY HILARIOUS google it PLEEEASE.

  4. Caperton
    Caperton May 1, 2012 at 10:47 am | *

    My family dinner table was always rather like yours–serious and totally unserious discussion, respectful taunting, conversation that gets just inappropriate enough to make my mom roll her eyes, the occasional recounting of something disgusting that happened with one of my dad’s patients. (I have developed an iron stomach and a serious aversion to tortelloni.)

    Dinner was always fun at holidays with my dad’s family. He has a brother and five sisters, all of varying political and religious views, and dinnertime conversation frequently ended in shouting and hurt feelings, followed by dessert and no more hurt feelings. A big disappointment after my great-grandmother died (outside of her being, y’know, dead) was that she was no longer present at family dinners to fix her gimlet eye on whomever was newest to the table and ask, “And how is your sex life?”

  5. rain
    rain May 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |

    But what struck me most fundamentally in reading this article — and in reflecting on my own dinner talks — is how much that time shapes a child. That, of course, doesn’t mean that a lack of those talks leaves a child un-shaped — children are shaped by a whole lot of things. But for me, the kind of engagement I had with my parents and my sister at the table shaped my skills as a thinker and an advocate; it shaped how I interact with people;

    As with many things, it’s only in the absence that you fully appreciate the significance. Growing up, we always had breakfast and supper together. Healthy meals, but no conversation. This wasn’t just the case for mealtimes either. Whether it was family trips or just being at home in the evenings, interactions were perfunctory and utilitarian. Sure, me and my sisters played with each other as kids, but by our teens, this trickled away to pretty much nothing. We all lived in our own little bubble, with nobody knowing what was happening in the others’ lives. Never mind having debates or an opinion or verbalizing an idea or learning about politics or how the adult world worked. It wasn’t until my 30s that my father would say things to me (say things as opposed to yelling or ordering), but it was always a one-way affair. It never got to the point where we actually had a conversation; you know, where he would say something, then I would say something, and he would hear what I said and respond. The situation was a little better with my mother, but still not free enough that I felt I could talk about, say, what things were like at school.
    And this has had a far-reaching and profound impact on my life, not having learned skills that lots of people take for granted. That many don’t even recognize as a skill that needs to be taught. So it’s not just about family bonding, or learning how to debate, but a much more fundamental learning how to be.

    I do feel un-shaped, and ill-equipped, and that, hard as I try, I will never catch up.

  6. j.
    j. May 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |

    Dinner conversations were always either silent, awkward, or hostile. We all escaped to the TV set as soon as possible.

    Meh. I’m an introvert and I mostly eat in front of the computer these days. I’m fine with that. I can go out to dinner with friends when I want some conversation with the meal, but most of the time I don’t find it lacking.

  7. matlun
    matlun May 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |

    When I was growing up, we often had debates about politics and religion at dinner. This tended to get heated with people interrupting and even talking over each other. No one was really dominating those conversations but everyone gave as good as they got and I never really reflected over this being unusual. It took a while before I realized most people considered that type of debate to be rude.

    There were a couple of memorable incidents where we managed to shock dinner guests when discussion started up as usual.

  8. Amanda Marcotte
    Amanda Marcotte May 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |

    The sit-down dinner was just not a consistent part of my upbringing. When my dad was home when I was a little kid, yeah, we ate as a family (though some times with MTV on!). After my parents divorced, it stopped really being a thing; my mom worked too hard. Then when she remarried, we rarely ate together. My mom got in the habit of just putting food out in the kitchen and everyone helped themselves. I some times ate in my room.

    Obviously, we eat together now when we get together, but that’s in large part because it’s a special occasion.

  9. dami
    dami May 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm |

    Dinner was at eight. The news were eight to eight thirty. If my parents were bored with the news, they would discuss job issues: they were former colleagues as bank clerks, so the discussions were pretty technical.

    I have children now, and there is no TV in our household, and no one is allowed to read during dinner (it is allowed to read at breakfast,since we tend to eat it at different times anyway and it’s not a cooked meal).

    The good thing about being an adult is that YOU make the rules. I’m so envious at all of you growing up with dinner discussions.

  10. Lindsay
    Lindsay May 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm |

    The no-phones rule from your family dinners sounds like a really wonderful idea. My family eats together every night, at a table, with no TV on, but they do answer the phone if it rings. This is very disruptive, and I have a psychological Thing where I feel terribly slighted and diminished if someone breaks off in the middle of a conversation with me to answer the phone. It feels like they’re saying I don’t matter, and what I have to say doesn’t matter.

    (Most recently, like a couple days ago, my dad was telling a story about the Red Baron, and how he was finally shot down, when the phone rang right as the fateful dogfight was beginning. The tale was never resumed.)

    Other than that, your family sounds kind of like mine. We don’t have any kind of structured plan for dinner conversation — no “what did you do today?” or “rose and thorn” roundtables — which I think would feel forced and annoying if I were faced with them every night. We talk if we have things to talk about, and read if we don’t. We talk a lot about politics, and a lot about really technical stuff in electromagnetics (my dad’s field) or sometimes chemistry or biomedical sciences. We also seize every opportunity to make bad puns. We are not all that big on debating, since some of us are conflict-averse and others (me) have communication difficulties that make coming up with arguments quickly enough impossible. So when I am going to discuss something with someone, I prefer to identify all the premises we hold in common, and show them how I get from those to whatever conclusion is being argued about. (And, of course, listen to how *they* get to *their* conclusion from those same common premises). I prefer explaining, and being explained to, over arguing, because I can explain but I cannot argue. This probably has roots in both my aforementioned language issues and my conflict-averse, exposition-heavy family dinner conversation style.

    This topic is hugely interesting; thank you.

  11. speedbudget
    speedbudget May 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm |

    Along with our family dinners that involved learning table manners and dinner conversation, my family spent a lot of time in an old Chevy van driving from one Army base to another. My mom always had _The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy_ with her, because in the back of the book were quiz questions. When the trip got tedious and little spats were breaking out, Mom would open the book and ask us a question. We would try to figure out the answer if we didn’t already know it, and then we would discuss the answer. It was a great bonding experience, and it taught us so much. I believe it made us the engaged citizens we are today.

  12. gratuitous_violet
    gratuitous_violet May 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm |

    A big disappointment after my great-grandmother died (outside of her being, y’know, dead) was that she was no longer present at family dinners to fix her gimlet eye on whomever was newest to the table and ask, “And how is your sex life?”

    My grandmother does this too. But in Portuguese, and usually while offering people bananas for dessert. It gets me every time.

    Back on-topic, the Times article, like most things in the NYT, set off my “classist tripe” alarm. It must be nice to have the chance to be think about what kind of dinner talk is best. My parents worried about whether or not one or both parents constantly being absent because of restaurant/service industry jobs even earned the family enough money to eat dinner in the first place.

    But then again, my parents always just conversed with me like a regular human being from the get-go, whether it was dinner time or not, and that seemed to do a good bit for my brother and I. In fact, now that we’re all grown adults we have Sunday roast together, in which we often talk raucously about politics and the awful state of journalism. I know what we’ll be talking about this Sunday!

    I mean, the topic of how to teach kids to converse and interact is a fascinating one. I just think dominant culture shows its bourgeois slip a bit when the institution of dinner itselfis framed as so important.

  13. Arkady
    Arkady May 1, 2012 at 4:49 pm |

    Dinnertable conversations were pretty eclectic in my family. We would generally have either the news or the Simpsons on, and often maintain conversation as well (our family ability to talk over the top of whatever’s on the tv still horrifies my sister’s boyfriend!). Pretty informal, everything from politics to science to school and work. Could be quite serious conversations when the news was on too, I’m just about old enough to remember when the IRA was still active and my parents would do their best to explain it. We also didn’t bother with any table manners my parents considered silly, so no ‘asking to leave the table’ at the end of the meal, you just got up when you finished and didn’t want any more (first person up started cleaning tho, so some disincentive!). We also had a very funny spate of telemarketing calls during dinner which my father would answer in an increasingly silly manner…

    My parents were always very good about having proper conversations with us, from as early as I can remember. When every other adult/teacher etc treats your opinions in a patronising manner, it makes a lot of difference to be able to hold an adult conversation with someone!

  14. j.
    j. May 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm |

    rain, FWIW, other people’s families always look better from the outside.

    Gratuitous_violet:

    Back on-topic, the Times article, like most things in the NYT, set off my “classist tripe” alarm. It must be nice to have the chance to be think about what kind of dinner talk is best. My parents worried about whether or not one or both parents constantly being absent because of restaurant/service industry jobs even earned the family enough money to eat dinner in the first place.

    No shit, huh? I always feel like those articles are just another way for People With Perfect Families™ to show off.

    Personally, despite my parents’ flaws, I’m glad I was born to them and not to the people who raised that thug Rahm Emanuel.

  15. The Amazing Kim
    The Amazing Kim May 2, 2012 at 4:15 am |

    My experience was the same as rain and j’s. Luckily I acquired my talking-to-people skills from sociable friends and good sharehouses, though later in life than most. Now I don’t really talk to my parents. And honestly, I wouldn’t know what to say.

  16. Angie unduplicated
    Angie unduplicated May 2, 2012 at 6:25 am |

    I lived in more than one household growing up, and the majority were of the “Children are to be seen and not heard” variety; like Violet’s, conversation was likely to be on financial limitations and the possibility of arguments loomed large in a couple of households.
    Once my mother regained custody, conversation at table became the norm, ranging from current events to the personal day. This often included topics from her job, and I was introduced to such tasty conversational tidbits as insurance fraud/dumb crook news, grossout health policy claims, and megacorp office backstabbers.
    Currently, I live and eat alone with a good book as a dinner companion.

  17. Jen in Ohio
    Jen in Ohio May 2, 2012 at 6:51 am |

    Typical dinnertime at my childhood home by age 7: made by me, myself and I, for a party of one, usually some Chef Boyardee something or another and a can of some kind of vegetables heated on the stovetop, to be eaten on my much beloved Muppets tv tray on the brown carpeted floor in front of the warm glow of the television while I watched The Carol Burnett Show. My father was off somewhere globetrotting and grease-monkeying and shooting heroin and I’d see him maybe once a year, and my mom was usually drunk in her bedroom or out at the bar with her friends.

    I still managed to learn how to converse and debate over the table, and I’m usually less of an asshole about it than people who grew up in better childhood environments, heh.
    /silver lining

  18. fangsforthefantasy
    fangsforthefantasy May 2, 2012 at 6:54 am |

    When I was growing up, we ate dinner as a family only on holidays. My parents ate together and us kids would eat in front of the television. My parents saw dinnertime as their time. Now that I have a family of my own, we eat together most nights. It was something that I felt had to be done. We always start off talking about our day and then quickly move on to politics. My kids are young 11 and 6 but we listen to their opinions and encourage them to debate. I think it is a wonderful time to teach critical thinking, as well as ensure that they understand the importance of questioning authority. My 11 year old has made some really salient points that have been surprisingly mature.

  19. Gorbachev
    Gorbachev May 2, 2012 at 7:02 am |

    It’s interesting that only j. mentioned that this seems to be a class privilege issue.

    The vast majority of families that aren’t middle and upper middle class usually have parents too harried to have this kind of conversation with their kids. I think it marks most of the commenters and the author as having relatively privileged and comfortable middle-class lives.

  20. Luna
    Luna May 2, 2012 at 9:42 am |

    Back on-topic, the Times article, like most things in the NYT, set off my “classist tripe” alarm. It must be nice to have the chance to be think about what kind of dinner talk is best. My parents worried about whether or not one or both parents constantly being absent because of restaurant/service industry jobs even earned the family enough money to eat dinner in the first place.

    It’s interesting that only j. mentioned that this seems to be a class privilege issue.

    The vast majority of families that aren’t middle and upper middle class usually have parents too harried to have this kind of conversation with their kids. I think it marks most of the commenters and the author as having relatively privileged and comfortable middle-class lives.

    Hah that’s how I feel too. I only figured out that families actually sat together for the whole “wholesome dinner and stimulating conversation” thing from watching family sitcoms. The way I and most of my friends grew up, individuals in a family just ate whatever they could whenever they got home from work or school or woke up or whatever.

    Out of curiosity, do middle-class people know that many poor families don’t even OWN dinner tables? They take up a lot of room and if mom and the kids [almost no one had a father in their household] do find time and energy to eat together that’s what the couch is for, or bed or front porch or whatever.

  21. samanthab
    samanthab May 2, 2012 at 11:16 am |

    I remember my family dinners as being full of opinionated discussions that involved mutual exchange. Sometimes the exchange was completely goofy; sometimes it was very serious. Often my Mother led them! Why am I not surprised, having read his writing, that Franklin Foer’s were led particularly by his father?

  22. matlun
    matlun May 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm |

    The vast majority of families that aren’t middle and upper middle class usually have parents too harried to have this kind of conversation with their kids. I think it marks most of the commenters and the author as having relatively privileged and comfortable middle-class lives.

    I am not sure I agree. Which definition of “middle class” are we using here? I would have classified us as “working class”, but those are somewhat fuzzy categories.

    In my case, both parents had 9 to 5 jobs so everyone tended to be home for the evening meal. There was not any hard rule in the family that you had to be home for dinner so often someone was doing something else, but when everyone was home at once we had dinner together.

    Still, I guess this is a bit subjective. Depending on who you compare with I would certainly agree you could classify us as “relatively privileged”, but isn’t that true for almost everyone?

  23. gratuitous_violet
    gratuitous_violet May 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm |

    but isn’t that true for almost everyone?

    See, this is exactly where I didn’t want my original comment to lead. The point is not that “well, some people don’t even have FOOD, so why bother talking about it?” My point in bringing class into it was only to suggest that centering a discussion about an immensely complex facet of childrearing around this one particular (bourgeois, often unattainable) cultural marker says more about our society’s classism than it does about our childrearing, dig?

  24. jennygadget
    jennygadget May 3, 2012 at 5:55 pm |

    gratuitous_violet @ 23:

    yes. exactly. thank you.

    And, you know, my family was middle class, but my dad often taught night classes and all four of us kids played sports, so there was a period of several years there where the struggle was very much just making sure that four children between the ages of nine and seventeen got to where we were expected to be and got fed at a decent hour.

    Like, I get the more altruistic motives of articles like this, and I do think conversation and respectful debate is important, I just think it can be done it lots of ways. I also shudder at the idea of having a set topic to discuss each night – Obama’s comment reminds me of having to tell my uncle “what I learned that day” each time I ate at a table with him. *shudders*

  25. natalia
    natalia May 5, 2012 at 9:35 pm |

    If we do ever sit together, its mostly small talk, lend by my parents who are as distance from politics as they can get next to not voting. Conversations at dinner are repetitive. Mostly i eat by myself even thought everyone is home. What you have with your family/friends sounds awesome.

  26. Rin
    Rin May 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm |

    My family doesn’t talk much during dinner. There aren’t any phones allowed and the TV must be off, but it usually just goes like this:

    DAD: “So, kids, how was your day?”
    LITTLE BROTHER: “Okay. Something silly happened at recess today. I learned about some branch of cosmology in science. I got my folder signed for talking during class.”
    DAD: “Again? No electronics for two days.”
    LITTLE SISTER: “Alright. I organized my closet again.” (My sister and I are homeschooled, so we have time to do that sort of thing — not that I do. I’m not exactly the closet-organizing type.) “I got five lessons done.”
    DAD: “Good job.”
    ME: “Fine, I guess. Read about a million chapters of that new book, I couldn’t put it down. Learned to play a new song on the piano. Did eight lessons of schoolwork. I’m getting sick of learning about the Industrial Revolution. But science is fun, I’m learning about anatomy. Oh, I have this really funny story to tell you, let me tell you what happened…”
    LITTLE BROTHER AND LITTLE SISTER: *listen and start to laugh and each one starts to tell their own funny story which my funny story reminded them of*
    DAD: “Okay, that’s enough. You’re getting them riled up again, Rin. Everybody calm down, we’re eating.”
    *silence reigns for the rest of the meal*
    DAD: “Thank you for doing the dishes, girls.”

    Then he and my mom go sit in front of the TV and my brother goes upstairs to do homework while my sister and I clear up and wash the dishes. Sometimes he’ll start a discussion about work with my mom, or she will tell me about a new book she’s reading, or (on very rare occassions) Dad will have something really interesting and mentally challenging that he wants us all to talk about, and we’ll have a really cool, thought-provoking dinner. But those occassions are rare.

    There are about a million things that I love about my dad. The way he handles dinner is not one of them. In my family, there really is no dinner-table discussion. It’s okay, though. I think it’s mostly just that my siblings and I all share a sense of humour and my dad doesn’t quite get it. He’s a very serious man, and my siblings and I are all loud and silly and nonsensical. We think fart jokes are funny. We like to make puns. He’s just not quite in on it, and he doesn’t find it very funny. I think it makes him uncomfortable. Which is fine. We just have to save our silliness for other parts of the day. :)

  27. RyanG
    RyanG May 15, 2012 at 2:36 pm |

    I had similar dinner experiences when I was growing up. Now, when I get together with my parents and adult siblings, we all have cell phones handy… which we use to fact-check each other. No need to rely on pure reason in absence of observations.

Comments are closed.

The commenting period has expired for this post. If you wish to re-open the discussion, please do so in the latest Open Thread.