Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why does dining table conversation matter & what does it teach?

Have you ever observed other people at restaurants? I'm afraid I can't help but notice the behaviour of other people at times when I dine out. In the last five years I've noticed that when people under the age of 35 eat out, they usually do so with their smart phones on the table or in their hands. I've witnessed tables of 4-6 people with every person looking at devices; sometimes sharing photos, links or Facebook posts, but often doing emails, checking their own status on varied social media and generally playing with the technology. While it's a worry to see adults having trouble sustaining a face-to-face conversation, it may at least in part, reflect the general loss of the practice of sharing meals and talking at the dining room.

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

We know already from social research that the family dinner is increasingly a curious practice from an earlier age. Reports suggest that as many as 10% to 20% of families never eat together, and most rarely eat together as a unit without a wide range of distractions such as television, eating standing up, at the kitchen bench and so on. Does this matter? I think it does. Not because I think all families should resemble the Waltons, but because I think we're losing the ability to listen to, ask questions of, and show genuine interest in the lives of other people. Our children are also missing out on many life lessons and key social practices that are vital for any community.

Let me offer 6 good reasons why a shared meal is something to protect:

1. The dining table is one of the few places that families sit down together and share things about their lives. The dining room table is a place where family members can let their guard down, and where previously unknown facts about school, friends, worries, hopes and frustrations can come to the surface.

2. The shared meal is also a place and time where children learn basic lessons about sharing, turn taking, avoiding gluttony, showing thoughtfulness, kindness to the one preparing the meal, nutrition and even food science. There will be challenges - tears about food not eaten, parents feeling like nags at times, the hard work of persisting with basic manners and so on - but they will learn many things that will help to shape their character.

3. Children learn how to ask questions of one another, and how to listen to the answers of others with patience, respect and kindness. Virtually all societies throughout the centuries have relied on the sharing of a meal as a key way to form children and build shared communities of varied kinds.

4. The dining table also trains children to listen and comprehend the conversations of others. At times a vibrant dinner table conversation will require children to keep in mind the comments of several people before framing their own responses. It also helps them to learn how to structure an argument, offer a point of view with politeness and humility, learn how to disagree calmly, and so on.

5. The dining room table also helps children to learn how to negotiate turn taking, how to be patient in conversations, when to speak and when to be quiet. They also learn what it means to be tactful and what others think it means to be rude and inconsiderate.

6. Finally, it is a place where relationships can be strained and strengthened. To be honest whether the conversation goes in a positive, or a negative direction, there is much to be learned about life.

Some quick suggestions for dining together

1. Try to remove all distractions other than people - switch the TV off, don't allow children to read at the table, switch off devices, let phones go to message banks and so on. While none of us can manage this all the time, and there can be wonderful dinner conversations over the sharing of a newspaper, a book, a YouTube video and so on, in families I think this should be avoided as much as possible.

2. If you're a parent think about some things to share and maybe make sure that everyone has a turn to share something about their day. Don't force this all the time, sometimes richer conversation can emerge without structure.

3. Be deliberate at times in the way you try to teach your children some basic social graces around turn taking, listening well, avoiding ridicule, showing kindness and so on.

4. Vary the way you share meals together and aim for a minimum number of meals together. Eat out together if you can afford it in places where talking is easy, or maybe just eat outdoors (BBQs, picnics etc). Invite guests to share meals with you, a visitor changes everything and can enrich the experience as well as introducing complexities that children need to learn to handle.

The reality is that in our fast paced world this isn't easy. You might need to set modest goals for eating together. For most families breakfast is an impossibility (and let's face it most teenagers can't communicate before 10.00am), and lunch through the week is at work and school. This leaves dinners and a few more options at weekend. At best most families will struggle to have more than a few meals together each week, but it's important to try. Families are all different of course and I have to say that for one of my daughters eating breakfast with her each day at 6.00am before rushing for an early train to university was a special time. And of course, all meals with toddlers are critical. They can be challenging and yet they are rich and important times.   


Ali Posner said...

I LOVE this Dr. Cairney!! I'd like to add one more to the list of the benefits of dining table conversation. It often includes the sharing of personal stories from the day -- stories with beginnings, middles, and endings; "characters", settings, problems, and resolutions; and even goals and emotional reactions of the characters involved. So quality dining table conversation actually relates positively to not only language development but also to the storytelling and specific narrative comprehension skills that are so important for reading success. I have found that I have to be very deliberate about preserving our family dinner time ritual, or else the craziness of life steals it away!

Trevor Cairney said...

Glad it struck a chord Ali. I like your additional point, thanks for this contribution. You're quite right, we learn a great deal about story and storytelling at the table.