Julia Steiny: Family Dinner is All About Learning to Get Along


by Julia Steiny

When my youngest child was a college freshman, he announced that coming home for Thanksgiving was way more trouble than it was worth.  He’d spare us the bother of him and stay at school.  He’s the world’s expert in yanking my chain.  In any case, while I love having the in-laws, friends and girlfriends at my candle-lit Thanksgiving dinner table, the ones I ache for are my three sons (Their dad is a given.)

My siblings and I jeered at my mother for making such a to-do about having her grown-up kids all home at the same time.  To this day she says it’s the only time she feels completely safe, able to see with her own eyes that each of us is all right.  Turns out the instinct to corral the adult children back to family dinner is a primeval mom-thing passed down genetically.  Who knew?

My kid’s college was so awkwardly located that getting to and fro by public transport was basically impossible.  But failure was not an option.  We knew he liked to be begged to come home.  So I did.  I begged.  Actually the little brat had a solution.  It cost me, but it worked.

With the last kid gone off to college, I was relieved to be done with teaching table manners and adjudicating annoying spats at dinner.  It’s a ton of thankless work, so now I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor.  My boys, now men, are my favorite dinner companions — resurgent brat behavior notwithstanding.

Years ago Dr. James Comer, the inspirational Yale psychiatrist, thrilled me when, in a speech, he made a huge to-do about the value of the family dinner table.  It’s not a quaint convention, but critical to learning social skills.  So turn off the blasted TV.  Protect dinner as sacred time most evenings.  Learn to live in a community by learning how to break bread with one another so it’s reasonably pleasant for all.  Comer argued, with impressive energy and passion for a man in his late 70s, that regular sit-down meals form the foundation of a good education.  They’re the crucible for manners, conversation skills, and family intimacy.

He said: “It is not the test scores that allow you to be successful in life; it’s the social skills that you learn at the dinner table: You come on time; you listen; you don’t talk for too long; you learn to debate; you learn personal control; you learn personal expression.  As for myself, I’d come home from school thinking about how to present my argument.”

Comer’s parents – a steelworker and an entirely unschooled maid – encouraged debate as an essential life skill, while forbidding actual fighting.  You could win arguments with power of persuasion and the merits of your evidence – Comer and his siblings combed libraries for proofs that they were Right – but the sheer force of shouting was not tolerated.  The celebrated psychiatrist credits those dinners with teaching the very skills that in one generation lifted all five Comer kids out of the lower working-class to become professionals.

Even the maelstrom of family mealtime assures kids – or it should – that someone is there for them, through thick and thin.  Love, trust and resiliency grow in the slog of reminders to put the napkin in your lap and to spare us the sight of talking with your mouth full.

Comer laments that sit-down meals are accepted casualties of the high-tech, on-the-go, hyper-busy modern world.  These days few moms find reason to engage in dinner battles with kids who claim that other kids’ parents trust their kids with more ‘freedom’ (to skip out) or ‘respect’ (to avoid accounting for their day).  Generally these days, many parents shirk the hard labor of disciplining and training their children.  (And then they send them to school.  Sigh.)

Getting along with each other is, was and always will be the biggest challenge humans face, individually and collectively.  From domestic divorce to international war, failure to get along produces misery — not just for the immediate participants, but often for all manner of innocent bystanders.

Whatever the reality behind the story of Thanksgiving, the myth celebrates diverse people cooperating to create a warm, winter meal.  We need more such meals.  I realize that our fragile economy is 70 percent about consumerism, but actually most kids don’t need more stuff.  This culture’s kids badly need more experience with sharing time and food gratefully, pleasantly, with extended family, intimates and new friends.

This year I’ll have to make do with two sons, as that last, the baby, is off having adventures on the other Coast.  Deeply miss him though I will, two new wives will be joining us.  And for that I am most, most grateful.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
11 27, 2014
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