There’s a post up in the Times Style section this week about dinner table conversation, and how it varies from family to family. The author notes that at her childhood dinner table, the parents did the talking and the kids kept to themselves. In the Foer family, no one ever asked “What did you do today?”; instead, the Foer father, “a lawyer who served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, led his children in debates about economic policy and civil rights issues, but with an open ear: a conversation about Reagan’s Star Wars policies might lead to a discussion about “why we couldn’t build a giant shield over the United States out of Legos.” In the Emanuel family, the three boys “came to dinner, at their mother’s insistence, ready to discuss the issues of the day; Rahm Emanuel has described the ensuing debates as “gladiatorial.”” Tiger Mom Amy Chua grew up with the TV on during dinner; for her children, she and her husband try “to devote about half the meal to catching up on their children’s lives and the other half to “bringing up interesting cases with moral dilemmas.”” Laurie David points out that dinnertime conversation is an important socializing tool — “A big part of the challenge is teaching your kids how to have a real conversation, not a texting conversation … If they’re not sitting down at the table, the art of conversation is going to go.” And the Obama family primes conversation with “the thorn and the rose, a mealtime ritual, simple and fail-safe, in which each family member talks about his or her low and high point of the day.”
Dinnertime conversation isn’t something I ever thought about until I was midway through college and realized that not every family sits down, spends a few minutes summarizing their day, and then gets into heated discussions about politics and law and religion and morality and ethics. The idea that discussing politics was “rude” was… not the rule in my family. And TV during dinner? Not a chance (my mother still gets a little salty at the fact that my roommate and I, despite being civilized ladies who regularly cook for each other and uncork a good bottle of wine, often eat our nutritious home-cooked-with-love meals in front of the TV, instead of sitting at the dining room table and having a proper meal). Even when I go home, still, a sit-down meal and a long discussion is a non-negotiable. The TV gets turned off. We don’t answer the phone. There are no cell phones allowed at the table. There isn’t a structured conversation — we just talk. And since I come from a family of political junkies, the conversation inevitably turns to politics; since I also come from a family of people who like to push boundaries and challenge each other, the conversation inevitably turns into an argument. No one yells — we aren’t a yelling family — but voices get raised and sarcasm gets thrown around and even though we’re all lefty liberals we get deep into it.
And then we clean up and we watch some CNN and we all move on with our lives. 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. Which is maybe why it’s taken me years to figure out that in the blogosphere, you can’t come at someone hard in a comment section and expect that they understand you’re challenging them because you respect them and find their views interesting, and that they will respond to your challenges and heated critiques with the same, and you’ll both walk away still liking each other and not thinking much about it beyond, “Well that was an interesting discussion.” Most people just think you’re a flame-throwing asshole. I blame my parents.
The sit-down-and-talk family dinner, obviously, is reflective of various privileges — and particularly the economic privilege of a job that allows a parent to be home to prepare food and to sit down with their children. 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; I’m sure it shaped my desire to be a lawyer and a politically-minded person and activist.
And the sit-down, no-phones, let’s-debate dinners are traditions I’ve carried on into my own “family.” I don’t have kids, and I live on the other side of the country from my parents. I’ve been in New York for more than a decade now, and I’ve been lucky to establish a group of Core Ladies who are de facto family. We take care of each other in a lot of ways, emotionally and physically — showing up to doctors appointments, celebrating victories, drinking away failures, financially subsidizing whoever is unemployed/in school/struggling, we bring over soup, we show up in the middle of the night if we’re called. But mostly, we sit down to meals, and we put our phones away, and we talk — about our lives, about books, about politics, about that latest New Yorker piece, about our jobs, about whatever. In a city where everyone is busy and it’s often easier to just meet for a quick drink or a cup of coffee or spend a whole meal texting the guy you’re dating, it’s special to have a group of women who make a regular effort to shut everything else out and sit down together, at someone’s home or at a restaurant, and be fully engaged with each other. It’s the closest thing to family I’ve had since leaving mine. So for me — in my parents’ home and now in my own — the dinner table is my church. And dinner talk is serious, and valuable, business.