In a world where work, school, and extracurricular activities seem designed to drive our families apart, can having family dinner rules really make a difference?
I think so. In fact, I believe that our family’s three dinner rules help us repair whatever emotional bumps and bruises have come our way each day, in a setting of unconditional acceptance.
So our family dinner rules go well beyond traditional etiquette. Let me explain.
To Build Family, Etiquette Isn’t Enough
One of the worst meals I ever sat through didn’t fail because of the food, which was really pretty good. It was bad because of the argument taking place around the table.
My friends were having a heated debate about veganism vs. eating meat, and tensions were running high.
That brings to mind another dinner conversation when politics came up. Talk about tension!
In my experience, we can sit down to the best food in the world, but unless our fellow diners don’t follow the dinner table rules, the menu won’t be what we remember.
I’m not talking about the etiquette dictating how we hold our forks. Etiquette plays an essential role in our society
However, by placing harsh expectations on children and those who’ve learned a different set of “proper manners,” etiquette can also ruin a good meal with stress.
The dinner table isn’t the place to correct or comment on someone’s etiquette. Any etiquette training should occur outside of dinner.
If someone’s etiquette needs improvement, they can take a class or watch a Saturday-morning YouTube video. Belittling another for the sake of style and form shouldn’t happen before, during, or after dinner.
I learned this the hard way after thoughtlessly correcting a business acquaintance. My comment about their use of a dinner napkin offended them and ruined the meal.
More embarrassingly, I was wrong about the proper way to use the napkin! I clearly should’ve kept my etiquette ideas to myself.
In my house, dinner table expectations are unspoken. We’ve been following three family dinner rules since before my first child’s birth over seventeen years ago, but this is the first time I’ve written them down:
- Be kind.
- Be present.
- Be thankful.
Family Dinner Rules #1: Be Kind
In her short audiobook, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, Brené Brown speaks of interviewing adults who no longer had relationships with their siblings. Far from staying in touch, they rarely, if ever, communicate.
Recalling the unchecked mean-spiritedness in their childhood homes, these adults asked questions like:
- “Why were we allowed to talk to each other like this?”
- “Why were we allowed to treat each other like this?”
- “Why didn’t my parents step in?”
The responsibility for fostering a kind family environment belongs to the parents! And there is no better place to nurture an expectation of kindness than around the dinner table.
Before Covid’s arrival, we had dinner guests in our home. As soon as I stood up to start clearing the table, they began arguing over politics.
I’m typically very chill, and especially so with my friends. But in that situation, my family saw a side of me they rarely do.
One guest was delivering a snide remark aimed at the guest across the table. Looking directly at the speaker, I said, “We don’t argue about politics in our home.”
Everyone at the table looked at me, but all I got from the two arguing were glances. They just kept going.
Despite having my hands full of dirty dishes, I stepped closer and repeated, “We don’t argue about politics in our home. You can go outside if you want to keep arguing,”
One of them softly grumbled that they weren’t arguing, but they got the message!
Was this a kind response to our guests?
Being kind is not opposed to candidness. Rather it works with candidness and anger to maintain a safe environment for everyone. We do encourage healthy debate and argumentation in our home, but it must be done in the proper time and place, and that is not at the dinner table.
The political foes’ temporary shortcoming didn’t affect how we interacted for the rest of the night. Following our confrontation, I focused on kindness with them. We spent the evening playing games and laughing,
Family Dinner Rules #2: Be Present
We haven’t officially banned cell phones from the dinner table. However, we do have an unspoken rule against texting or talking on them during meals.
One of my former employees had a bad habit of letting his phone distract him during meetings. He was in management, and I otherwise appreciated his work ethic and enjoyed working with him.
I told him I’d appreciate his not letting the cell phone be a constant distraction during our meetings. He obliged.
But before speaking to him, I considered my behavior. Being the boss didn’t give me permission to take texts or glance at my phone during meetings either.
I decided to work on my bad habit as well, and focus on being fully present with whomever I meet with. And that includes my family at the dinner table.
Being present goes beyond ignoring distractions. On many evenings, we go around the table, taking turns sharing the best and worst of our day.
We don’t pretend that life is all highs. We also share the lows.
When one of us is sharing, we don’t just half-heartedly listen, we genuinely celebrate each other’s successes and empathize with each other’s struggles.
Family Dinner Rules #3: Be Thankful
Because our family dinner rules make every meal special, I have difficulty pointing to one as the best.
Last night, we were on the road late. So, I skipped dinner and went to bed as soon as we arrived at our destination. Yet I slid under the covers feeling thankful.
Because during the late afternoon, my wife had been in the mood to bake vegan chocolate chip cookies and play a few rounds of UNO.
But she accidentally burned the cookies, and then one of my sons spilled his hot tea all over the table, splashing the cards, cookies, and some of our laps.
After pitching in to clean up the mess, we rewarded ourselves with soggy, burnt cookies.
But we loved every minute of it.
Who wouldn’t go to bed with a smile after a dinner of soggy, burnt cookies?
Thankfulness is all about perspective.
We can have a perspective that the world owes us something. Or, we can view every bite of food, every night of comfortable sleep, every shower, all our clothing, our air conditioning, and every breath we take as an incredible gift.
My mother was born next to the Amazon River in the jungles of South America.
Not having to scavenge dinner in the woods or work 10 hours in a factory followed by eight more at a restaurant to feed my family? It’s a luxury I don’t take lightly.
In a single generation, we’ve moved on from cleaning the wild game we just caught for dinner in a piranha-infested river (my grandma showed us the piranha-bite scars on her ankles).
Our survival doesn’t depend on my juggling a car-parts assembly line and restaurant job, like my Mom’s did when she first arrived in the US.
Now, we don’t think twice about hitting the grocery store and filling our shopping carts with anything we want. Or tapping a screen from the comfort of our home to have dinner show up at our door within an hour.
I can’t believe how good I have it – and I don’t want to eat one morsel of food without experiencing a full measure of gratitude.
Only when we accept life on earth as the miracle it is can we live it with the appreciation it deserves.
Tonight, we’ll honor our family dinner rules once again. Gathering around our table in kindness and gratitude, we’ll be present to each other in a place where we know we all belong.
I can’t wait for dinner time!