The Best Part of Dinner?

Mealtime today is assaulted from all sides: work schedules, sports practices, music lessons and fitness classes. It is also undercut by poor meal planning. Television and the telephone add to the opposition.

For some families, it’s just not possible to have everyone there for dinner, and they must be creative to accomplish time together. But those who make the effort never regret it.

Sparking Conversation

“I could recite all the American presidents when I was in kindergarten, and I still can,” a young woman proudly told us. Her parents made a game of learning at the dinner table, creating silly rhymes with the initials of the presidents’ names to help their children memorize them.

In contrast, an elementary school principal recently said, “I really notice the difference in our kindergartners over the years, and it’s their lack of vocabulary. They aren’t able to carry on a conversation. I think it’s because they sit in front of the TV so much and aren’t talked to by their parents at home.”

Children learn conversational skills in the course of family discussions. Without conversation in the home,
children have difficulty conversing with adults, and sometimes even with their peers. With conversation, they learn skills that carry over into school and into life. A recent national poll on factors contributing to happiness and high marks in school included these findings: Religious students with strong family support are the most likely to succeed in school. A related factor is that the most successful students were also those most likely to eat dinner regularly with the whole family.

Dolores Curran, a teacher, also sees the effect of family table talk on children at school: “We often are able to identify students who come from such families. These students seem confident that their opinions are respected, even if they aren’t shared. The give-and-take of good family discussion is valuable for another reason: It gives children practice in articulating their thoughts at home so that eventually they’ll feel confident outside the home.”

Each of us needs a forum where we can express our dreams, our irrational fears and our crazy ideas. We need a lace where people bear with our jokes, even if they’ve heard them many times or if they’re not funny. We need a place where we don’t have to be the smartest or the funniest, where what we say is valued.

A friend reminisced about her son’s days in kindergarten:
“I loved those days when Rob thought he could do anything, and the world hadn’t yet taught him he couldn’t.” The world will, indeed, tell each of us that we can’t always accomplish our dreams. We don’t need to learn that at the dinner table. Rather, we need the reinforcement to keep trying!

The characters and chemistry in each family are unique. There’s no pat formula to get them all talking. But a few tips will help ensure success.

1. Sit down together at the table and keep distractions, especially the television and telephone, at a minimum.

2. Treat each family member with respect. Establish ground rules regarding monopolizing the conversation. If you have someone who loves center stage, jump in when he or she pauses for a breath and ask someone else to comment.

Mimi has spent much time in Quito, Ecuador (where she and her husband are missionaries), listening carefully to conversations in Spanish, trying to understand and figure out how to respond. In her listening, she’s learned to tell the difference between people who are merely taking turns talking and those who are really communicating. Too often we listen with our minds preoccupied with our own response. But when communication-the real connection-takes place, it’s awesome. And it’s worth wading through many family discussions to get there!

3. Establish some basic rules concerning acceptable table language, behavior and topics.

4. Children should ask to be excused and should learn to sit at the table for a reasonable length of time, according to their age and personality, after they have finished eating. For young children, coloring books at the table can help keep their minds and hands occupied.

5. Steer the conversation away from criticizing other people, whether present or absent. Although we don’t condone everyone’s behavior, we should uphold each person’s worth. if this is the general attitude displayed toward people through the talk around the table, children will feel safe expressing their own feelings. if a child or adult expresses strong feelings-for example, disappointment over failing a test-empathize rather than criticize. Don’t make light of it, think of excuses, or blame the teacher for being unreasonable.

6. Ask questions at the table for which anyone seated will have an answer, and which cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Set the tone by being honest and vulnerable. For example, if a child is experiencing a rough ride through puberty, reminisce about your own experiences at that age. Let your child know you didn’t feel secure about yourself, or that you didn’t make it to adulthood without suffering some scrapes along the way.

7. Remember what Colossians 4:6 says: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.” Using just the right amount of salt doesn’t call attention to the saltiness or the lack of saltiness in food, but it enhances natural flavors. Let your conversation bring out the best in others. Be animated, but not sharp. Participate, but don’t dominate.

Let It Flow

So what is there to talk about in your home? Plenty!

You can plan a discussion question or two, or just let it flow. Chances are, over time you’ll use a good mix of both. Encourage children to participate at their own levels of understanding.

Mimi calls planned discussion “putting a subject on the table.” When you do this, remember the objective is to get everyone thinking and sharing from his or her own experiences and insights. The point is not to reach a consensus or the “correct” answer.

Good topic ideas can surface from other conversations, books, newspaper or magazine articles, movies or TV shows, political speeches or neighborhood issues. When a good idea comes to mind, write it on the calendar or a chalkboard in the kitchen. Or put it on a Post-it note at your place at the table so you won’t forget it. Sometimes assign other family members to come up with the questions.

Read excerpts from a letter addressed to the family and reminisce about those particular relatives or friends. Pray for them. Compose a round-robin reply, with each person adding a few lines. Bring a cartoon, riddle, joke or poem to the table. If a conversation falls flat, so what? Try another one.

For Learning, Too

When famine and civil war gripped Somalia and the United Nations sent troops and food, we pulled out the family atlas – a good resource to keep near the table. Where is Somalia anyway? Perhaps a child knows and an adult doesn’t. What countries does it border? What are its climate and topography? What have we learned about the situation there? One 6-year-old girl reflected at her family dinner table: “Too bad Somalia doesn’t have a Joseph. He prepared for famine.”

Put a globe in the center of the table and make a game of finding particular countries, oceans, seas, large cities or continents. Study a chart of the constellations visible at that time of year. Choose three or four in particular and then search the sky for them later that night. Curiosity is contagious; pass it on.

The world is shrinking rapidly through. advances in communication and travel. Our children are likely to venture farther into the world than we have, at the least by linking electronically with people of other cultures. At the table, families can share knowledge and skills that will help prepare children for life in their world.

If a child is studying a foreign language, or if a parent knows another language, learn as a family some common words and expressions. Discuss how that language differs from English. Learn the gracious words: thank you; please; excuse me; good morning.

Discuss movies the whole family has seen, musical performances, or books. Encourage family members to think, analyze and articulate with the goal of discerning the precious and recognizing the worthless.

Children must learn that not everything in print is worth reading. Not everything on television is worth watching. Not everything seen and heard in the various media is true or healthy. Not all adults are trustworthy, nor their conduct worth emulating.

Define words and concepts: urban vs. suburban, civil rights, abortion, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, salvation by works or by grace. Katie Couric of the “Today Show” says she grew up in a home where her dad asked each of his four children to bring a new word to the table each night.

For Family Meetings

Mealtime can be used for a periodic family meeting. At your meetings discuss family rules–especially at the beginning of a new school year-regarding homework, bedtimes and television. At the beginning of summer, plan a vacation or activities-, or anytime discuss a problem the family needs to handle collectively.

At a family meeting you might decide on a gift the family will give at an upcoming wedding, birthday or graduation celebration.

Think of a neighbor, relative or friend who could use some encouragement and how your family could help. Fix a meal, watch pets, baby-sit, mow the lawn, give flowers and so on. Soon after Christmas, hold a family meeting to write thank-you notes. Parents set the tone at the table.

They must forge an undercurrent of respect, and they must be willing to listen. While parents may have the final say, it’s important that children feel their ideas are valued and that they participate in family decisions. When they do, the family is richer, the family’s sense of identity is stronger, and the children are better equipped to participate with confidence in the classroom and in their world.


According to Bruce Wilkinson, author of The Family Walk, there is no topic that incites more frustration in the Christian mother or more guilt in the Christian father than that of family devotions. (Devotions are a time when the family discusses a spiritual lesson and/or lifts prayer needs to the Lord.)

In his extensive travels over 30 years, Dr. Harold Westing, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Denver Seminary, has stayed in homes instead of hotels whenever possible. During his visits in hundreds of homes, he has learned there are basically two ways families teach children about Christianity: as a system or as a relationship.

Teaching spiritual principles is most effective when they are delivered in the warp and woof of life, in the course of everyday conversation–like answering the question, “Where did you see God working in your life today?”

Don’t exclude God talk from the fun talk you have at the table. Don’t relegate it to only a set apart, solemn time. If you read a family devotional or passages of Scripture at the table, or perhaps memorize Bible verses, keep the time brief, the focus relevant, your prayers genuine, and don’t be afraid to have fun.

Use object lessons. Place a jar of yeast and water in the center of the table and ask “What does this have to do with the Bible?” As you use the salt shaker ask, “Who can think of ways salt is mentioned in the Bible?”

(Let your speech always be seasoned with salt. You are the salt of the earth. Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt.)

Don’t keep God in a box; include Him at the table.