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we enforce a nightly family dinner. we eat at six and everyone needs to be in attendance and wearing a shirt (for logic i don't fully understand, pants seem optional). there can be no toys, books, or other distractions (e.g. phones, handhelds) at the table. being a family that sits down together at the end of the day and communes as a group was one of marty's few non-negotiables about how her family would conduct themselves 1. i thought it a bit maniacal at first, i probably even rolled my eyes (after safely turning my head away of course) but recently confessed to her i now deem it one of our family's most valuable assets.

one might think that a table with five humans sitting around it would be, by default, alive with spirited conversation. one might even think that it would be impossible to combine that many personalities and have it be anything other than animated, but it suprpisingly doesn't hold true. after sprinkling a combination of daily fatigue and sibling angst and familial comfortability, and/or ravenous hunger (or conversely, venomous hatred of a dish) over a situation, you can easily produce ten bleared eyes and five masticating jowls sitting around a cloth-covered oval and just kinda looking at one another until stomachs finally get full.

seeing this develop bummed me out, like quite a bit. i can tie my dourness to my past where i grew up in a house that more times that not watched television while we ate. we conversed little aside from an occasional comment on a sixty minutes piece or a sports play. thus in youth during one of my many "when i grow up" moments, i conjured fanciful visions of a smartly appointed dining room which always offered a well-stocked table and was ringed by interesting and engaging humans who all led vibrant and curious lives. on paper, you'd think the five healthy, active humans at my family table living in these modern and exciting times would have so much to share each day, our biggest problem would be getting through each person's report before the bedtime hour. but, this was not the case and sometimes long stretches of quiet, near-sullen gatherings played out instead.

fancying myself a solver of problems, i swung my mental arsenal around to this particular dilemma (yes i know we're talking about a cap gun and slingshot here but i've learned if you shoot enough rocks at a third story window, you're bound to hear glass break at some point). as with virtually all effective solutions, you can plot most success stories as a series of meager evolutions. my first addition to the cause, several years back, were thankfuls. thankfuls had each person at the table express something they were thankful for from that day (or this life). at first the family proved giddy at this exercise but in time found the redundancy of it tiresome and hard to stick with (except when we'd have company--then the kids would fight over who got to explain how thankfuls worked--that said, they'd also fight over who got to scold a newcomer if they performed the ritual differently than we do). after many months some of the daily thankfuls began sounding like "i'm thankful for air" or "i'm thankful for everything i'm thankful for". i'm sure you can guess how i felt about this development. and equally problematic, after a round of thankfuls the table could return to its sullen state which showed that more was needed.

in attempt to spice up the post-thankful leg of dinner we started asking riddles. we got a box of them from somewhere and we'd read one or two of them and work on them through dinner. these did stimulate conversation but they proved reasonably hit or miss. some are just tricks with language and some are hard beyond reason. in the end, in addition to the unpredictability, a thing i didn't like about them was their lack of applicability to life. they were fine for reasoning skills but answering questions about how far someone could run into a forest didn't really have much practical application to my kids (or my!) life. so i modified the riddle-exercise slightly to instead just be a nightly question.

the largest benefit of the nightly question is i get to custom-craft it, for the moment and day, ensuring that it proved suitable or appropriate for my kids' ages. for questions i tried to think of problems, real-life problems or situations, my kids might find themselves faced with. sometimes they are serious and sometimes the are just silly or contemplative. but the one thing they all share is they are meant to stimulate thought and discussion.

to begin the new routine, one day i announced i had a question for the table. it's shocking how such a simple statement can revive and pique young, bored minds. you'd see them lift their gazes from the plates, their faces perking up and maybe asking "what is it? what is the question?" then i'd ask the question and you see the small wheels start churning, like immediately. even though i've never made mention of a race, between our three, it always seems a race as each child's mind sprints towards a solution, eyes darting to the others for some show they are closing in on an answer to share with the table. in time, a hand will shoot up followed by a "i know, i know". we will then bounce around the table, everyone sharing their answer. as for what kinds of questions we're talking about, they are all kinds but here are a few i can remember being asked:
  • what would you do if you took treats to school but accidentally wound up two short?
  • what would you do for a million dollars?
  • what would you do with a million dollars?
  • what would you do if you saw your best friend steal something out of the teacher's desk?
  • what is one thing you'd like to change about this family?
  • what is the hardest part about doing homework, starting, the middle or finishing, and why?
  • let's say we were dog-sitting and the dog died. when the family returned and called to pick up the dog, how would you break the news to them?
  • (this was one of my favorites) let's say you were walking home. you were still a full mile or twenty minutes from home and someone stopped you. they told you that if you could remember this international (long!!!) phone number and call it the second you got home, they would give you $50,000. you don't have a pen. you don't have any digital thing to make note of it. what would you do to remember the number? (marty had the greatest answer to this).
an unanticipated benefit of this practice is how it allows us to introduce complex and possibly ethics-challenging moments in the calm of our dinner room where no one has real skin in the game. additionally, it lets us discuss as a group the issues that arose in considering the problems and even try to collectively come up with what some of the best paths might be, and more importantly, why they are the best paths.

the nightly question has for sure proven to be the most popular and longest lasting addition to our dinner table. in fact, after we settle in to dinner, if i don't bring it up one of the kids will say, as naturally as they might ask for the butter, what is the question of the night. there was a period of time this would catch me off guard and i'd stammer and have to quick think of one. given how often that happened, now the last thing i do before leaving the office at night is to take five minutes to think of the question for the night. and on a good night, i can't wait to get home to hear everyone's answer. which i guess i don't have to say is another boon of a lively, conversation-rich family dinner table.

1 we only eat as a family sunday through thursday. friday and saturday nights are free-for-all, fend-for-yourself nights. we usually do still eat together on the weekends but it doesn't carry the same formality. and yes, there are the obvious and occassional weekday exceptions when life sticks a foot in the door in the form of a school concert or work need or kid invitation to eat elsewhere, but we work to make those happen sparingly. in fact, after a rough week where we missed a few dinners in a row, in an frustrated tone, bella hit marty up:

BELLA
so mom. when are we going to have dinner again?

MARTY
what do you mean? we eat dinner every night.

BELLA
no. together. as a family.

as a great man once said, "i love it when a plan comes together!"

photo credit goes to my sister-in-law, thin-when-tan-girl who, i believe, took this shot just for my sake. and for the record, that sort of thoughtfullness earns you an open invitation to our family dinner table, an invitation she has accepted many times, particularly on steak nights.

MAR2013

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