Tonight's dinner was Thai Red Curry - and as we sat talking, by the end we were discussing if it is possible to drive from here to Hong Kong. So we tightened the query to whether it is possible to drive from Alaska to Russia. We were pondering the likelihood of frozen seas to cross and wondering just how far the distance is between our continent and Europe.
How did we get to this point in the conversation? Let me re-trace our conversational steps and give you an inside peek into the crazy rabbit-trails involved in our table-talk.
The 12-year-old had recently looked through a National Geographic Kids' magazine and seen an article about owning exotic pets. He had learned that in Wisconsin, there are more freedoms for owning wild animals, whereas, in our state of Illinois, there are higher restrictions. When he mentioned 'Wisconsin,' the 16-year-old thought he said, 'Hong Kong' even though these words hardly sound alike. That began a discussion about whether you can have wild animal pets in Hong Kong. Which led to the 12-year-old asking, 'I wonder if you can drive to Hong Kong?'
We typically never use phones or gadgets at our table, and banish them as a hard and fast rule. But our curiosity got the better of us, and we whipped out phones to discover the geography at the top of the world. All of us got involved in the imaginings - what would a road trip be like? Would they build a 55-mile undersea tunnel from Alaska to Russia? Would they finish this road in our lifetime? I surmised I wouldn't be alive by the time this imaginary tunnel is completed. I next commissioned the 16-year-old to take my future grandchildren on the most epic road trip of all time - beginning in New York and ending either in London or China.
Is this what conversation looks like at your dinner table?
I have to say, many of our evenings are more about survival and following our tradition of eating together each night, rather than engaging in anything meaningful. Family dynamics wax and wane and more often than not, there are snippets of irritations, fatigue, discontent with my awesome culinary exorbitance, and the like. But, because we are in the habit of sitting at the table, and because it is summer, and there are less pressures on us of things needing to get done, we once in a while actually enjoy the banter, the dialogue, wonderings and silly jokes that leak out of the rag-tag group of people we know as family.
Here are some ways we naturally enhance our mealtime conversations - which can be a challenge when we have a daily gathering of the nine members of our household which cover these ages: 7, 10, 12, 16, 18, 42, 45, 49, 78. Yes, our conversation must be versatile and capable of engaging an immature (age-wise) audience, and those with super-brains (the teens, I imagine in this category), and those with sluggish brains (especially my mommy-fried one).
1. Serve International Meals
Regularly serve a meal that includes something that reflects some other country or culture.
This does not mean you have to go to great lengths to serve up something exotic. I used to try to stretch our family's palate, which, for the most part, they tolerated well. When I made an African dish called FuFu, which was purple, and somewhat tasteless, they finally drew the line and called it quits. I'm sure it is a yummy dish if someone makes it properly, but my family was having none of it.
Even if it is something typically 'American,' like spaghetti - you might be able to start a discussion on what qualifies as 'American' food, especially when we also think of spaghetti as Italian. Sometimes the quickest way to engage in conversation is to pick up on what is sitting right in front of you. At mealtime, that would be the food you are serving. Find ways to introduce conversations around other cultures and places, simply by asking questions: 'What did they eat before someone invented spaghetti!? Can you imagine such a time?' Or, 'I wonder who invented spaghetti.' Food is a great common denominator. (Speaking of spaghetti... you might like to know it wasn't the Italians who came up with it, it was brought from China to Italy by Marco Polo.)
2. Read Widely as a Form of Dinner Prep
You will come up dry if you don't regularly expose yourself to new thoughts, ideas, advances in science, philosophy, theology, technology, and the like. Don't limit your reading material to a tiny screen you keep in your pocket (or that doesn't stay in your pocket very long!). In a doctor's office, read the magazines. I avoid the pop-culture magazines, and always look for the Scientific American, Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic and once in a while, a medical or health magazine. Yes, you can look these up through a screen, but screens are distracting, and it is easy to wander from thing to thing. A real, paper, tactile experience, held in your hands as you turn pages - this experience is slower, more engaging, and less thumb-carpal-tunnel-inducing.
Even better than magazines are actual books. The kind they stock in places called libraries - remember those? Pardon my tongue-in-cheek. What I'm getting at is that interesting developments and discoveries are going on all the time. The conversation often flows easier when you have vast amounts of randomly fascinating information tucked in your noggin that you picked up in various places along the way. The art of 'picking up' this information comes largely from your natural curiosity, which will need to be stoked at times. Fairly often at our table, I'll mention an article I had just read. If it is relevant and interesting to all at the table, I might grab it and read a paragraph or two.
3. Have a Handful of Questions at the Ready if You Need a Prop
Last night, my husband casually asked our son, 'If you could go to any country, where would you like to go?' Some of our children are still refining the art of good manners, and before the boy could answer a few of the other children had already chimed in and announced where they would like to go. We never did hear his response.
Sometimes my husband will ask, 'If you could be any animal, what would it be?' Usually, you would follow up with 'Why?' But we never get that far because the conversation typically heads there without the question ever being asked.
These are what I call fantastical-wondering-imagining questions. They aren't the same as, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' or 'What would you like to do this summer?' Those are more reality-factual based. Those questions are right to ask but have limited responses - often more predictable ones and ones that do not change. Wondering and imagining questions invite those gathered to think about the impossible or unimaginable things. One of our kids said he'd like to be a bird so he could fly high above and not be afraid of heights. I answered him that King David also longed to be a bird so he could fly away from things that scared him. I quoted from Psalm 55: 'Oh that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and the storm.' I told him he had great thoughts, similar to one who penned Scripture!
Conversations like this can go any which way. There are natural ways to share insights, longings, and get to know each member of the family in a way that might be missed if we didn't gather around the table each night to share a meal.
4. Make Allowance for Negativity
This is not exactly a tip for a conversation starter, but a way to create an atmosphere in which conversation can flourish. Out of 9 people at our table, not every single one has had a great day. Some might be tired, bothered, short-tempered, stressed, or worried about something. Others might just want to get through the meal and escape the family chaos. We don't require anyone to talk or answer questions, but if we sense a kid is withdrawing and has no valid reason other than a self-centered attitude, we suggest that they ask three questions or the same question to three people before being excused. We don't force participation but kindly ask them to consider this as a way to engage and show interest in others in the family.
Sometimes during our mealtime discussions, a scuffle might ensue between siblings. For example, one might be tattling, and another might take offense. These things are normal, everyday occurrences at our house. We know these unpleasant times happen, and that sometimes they derail the entire meal and no one wants to eat anymore. All families have seasons of strife and conflict. We don't decide to quit our family traditions because we don't always get along. We make room for our own rough edges. We allow for stress and tension, and sometimes even this becomes fodder for a good conversation. I would not suggest you address it at the dinner table when everything is spiraling downward. This sort of conversation is best left until the following day. I regularly point out what happened when we all got mad at each other. I remind my tribe that we want our family to be a safe place to have unpleasant feelings and express them, but that we need to learn ways to express them without being unkind, hurtful, rude or demeaning to each other. Sometimes meal conversations are psycho-educational and relationship-dynamic-repairing.
Why have I included this in my list of tips for mealtime conversations? Because if I'm honest, I have to acknowledge that our family times are sometimes quite stressful and overwhelming. If you endeavor to engage your family in good conversation, I can almost guarantee you will find points of relational friction arising. I include this as a way to prepare you for some of the tensions that can arise. Part of why we sit around our table each evening, even in the tough times, is because we believe this practice stretches our tolerance of each other, imperfect as we are.
Household peace is hard to come by. It is easier to achieve if everyone just stays away from each other and the home functions as a college dormitory. Yet, this kind of 'purchased peace' comes at a cost. The cost is not knowing each other as well as we might; it is higher self-absorption; it is low tolerance for conflict and differences in others - the cost is greater than you might think.
I see some of the benefits of this family practice in how easy it is for my kids to talk with strangers when they meet for the first time. I see the payoff in how engaged and interested they are in the world around them. I see the dividends as they explore the world far away and in how they take a natural interest in things going on in scientific discoveries, health advances, political situations around the globe, and the particular burdens of individuals we've talked about at our table.
Conversation is only as good as it's participants, and we are all flawed. If we can accept that, and continue, with patience, I believe the payoff is worth the effort.
5. Talk about everyday things
What are some current stresses? What are you filling your days with? What do you need to get done before going to bed tonight? How are you coming along with that paper?
These are the kinds of things that we discuss. Tonight we asked the 16-year-old, 'How far have you gotten in The Tale of Two Cities?' Before she could answer, the 12-year-old piped in, 'Hey, I've read that!' We all looked at him, incredulously. He brought out his Great Illustrated Classics version and showed us. Regardless, we still congratulated him, and he commented, 'Yeah, that's when I used to read.' So, yes, still some work to be done there.
Often the everyday things lead to more discussions, but sometimes this is where the stress comes in. It helps us to know where our kids are at or for them to know where we're at with things weighing us down.
6. Include Spiritual Content
My suggestion here is to avoid having an agenda. If you are growing spiritually, be willing to share how. Don't... DON'T contrive a lesson or mini-sermon about self-control with words, or diligence in working hard, or on 'Children obey your parents.'
That said, you might want to bless your family with the overflow of the grace of God in your life. A few years ago, I noticed how God kept answering different prayers I offered and realized I hadn't been paying much attention to that. I started telling stories of how God met different needs we had at the time (and of course, He still does!). I didn't mean for it to become a 'thing' - these 'Manna stories' as we called them. But sure enough, as they kept arising and I kept sharing them, the kids started to expect them once in a while. They even began to ask, 'What's your Manna story for today, Mommy?'
The key here is: have your eyes open. Your spiritual eyes that is. Notice how God is present in your life and naturally share this with your family at the dinner table. I don't even ask a question to invite their attention - often I just say, 'I have a manna story to tell!' My kids ten eagerly ask what happened that day that I opened my eyes to see how God was at work in my life.
7. Gratitude Practices
A great thing to do at mealtimes is to ask everyone at the table to come up with something they're grateful for that day. Sometimes we have grumpy kids, and they can't think of One. Single. Thing. We might try to point something out to them, and if they are really grumpy, they'll even refuse the idea. Now this can easily escalate into something more unpleasant (what can be worse than an ungrateful kid!!?). But, we just go on past the grumpy ones and let them stew. Conversations work best when not forced.
8. Share Problems and Burdens
Sometimes we will invite those at our table to share something weighing on them or something they're struggling with. Different ones may or may not be willing to share openly, and that is fine. For a while, we as a family sought to pray specifically for each other in particular ways that we felt we needed to grow in. This exercise took place at the tail-end of what we now refer to as 'Mommy's 7 Years of Yelling.' No, I'm not proud of that... that is another story: cue another blog about my growth in self-control and anger issues. I mention it here because these family prayer-request times actually led to (get this...!) Answered Prayer!! Imagine! Each of us had different ways we were struggling, and everyone knew that my issue was self-control and not becoming too angry. We prayed once the meal was over. A prayer for one of us was, 'We pray that so-and-so will learn to just let things go.' Sometimes this was followed with a few kids humming the 'let it go' theme from the movie Frozen. At least it brought a little comic relief to the intensity! I remember innocent little Hannah, at four years-old praying, 'And please God, help Mommy to have self-control.
9. Ask older ones to share a childhood memory or story
It saddens me to think my kids can no longer ask my Dad about his childhood experiences. Thankfully, I had the chance to listen to many of his stories over the years, and so I try to pass them on to my own family. Even though I am 42, and consider myself relatively young as far as history goes, in my short life, I've lived through some significant goings-on in history. I visited Russia in 1987 before it had opened up. My school sat in silence on the 5th of June 1989 because of our proximity to Tienanmen Square. My husband rode a motorbike from Israel to South Africa. After we were married, my husband and I got to ride in the cockpit on our flight to Hong Kong! Of course this was not planned. Although we knew the pilot, we didn't know he was flying our plane until we heard him introduce himself at just before take-off. My Mother-in-law (who lives with us) grew up in India, Pakistan and South Africa. My sister-in-law (who also lives with us) grew up in Zambia and lived in China for a decade.
We have numerous stories to share about our lives and we pass on living history through the telling of these stories.
10. Listen with Love
My final tip is this: Listen with your heart. Conversation goes best when each person is committed to loving each other. It sounds simple, but it is perhaps the hardest tip to do because a mere act of the will can't achieve this. Harnessing the will to love is appealing, but fraught with pitfalls. The way to love is to invite God to love through us. It is less about harnessing our will and more about inviting His Spirit to enter and reign - to breathe His presence into every interaction. I can't say we've succeeded in this in our home. But I hope we will grow to be His vessels of grace in how we take an interest in, converse with, bless and encourage and lift each other up.
Conversation is less about what is said and more about how we listen. Are we listening with love? Sometimes our discussions derail because we turn towards disagreement and argument. Instead of affirming the one speaking, we retort or tease or belittle their idea. The old adage, "If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all," is appropriate here. Sometimes we feel more like referees at the table than a community of meal-sharers. We may need to step in and remind each other to be kind in our words and interactions. But over time, we have all grown to have more peaceful, enjoyable mealtimes where we explore ideas, each others' lives and the events and situations of the world.
I trust as you implement these ideas, you too will reap dividends in your family life - that you will see your kids take an active interest in people around them, the world around them, and the ideas on the horizon of society. In the past week, a few people have remarked to us how much they've enjoyed conversing with our kids - how they are surprised to see young people ask thoughtful questions and maintain an open curiosity about those they meet. These are the payoffs of our family tradition of mealtime conversation. They can be yours if you stick to a tradition of conversing, listening, awareness, and prayer.
Because we value family time and conversation, we will send a box of Conversation Starters for Families by Gary Chapman and Ramon Presson to the first 20 people who leave a comment in the comment section sharing your favorite way to start a dinner time conversation. This offer is valid for 30 days from the publication of this blog post.