If the tyranny of dinner (So much pressure! So much compelling, guilt-inducing evidence in its favor!) sends you over the edge, I am sorry to share this terrible news. The importance of Family Dinner grows right along with our progeny. The good news is, pizza counts.
Parents I admire know a lot about their teenagers. They don’t hover or helicopter; in fact, they allow quite a lot of freedom within strict boundaries. They listen more than lecture. They forgive and forget. They cut some slack, but when their kids do truly reprehensible things, these parents get right up in their business. These moms and dads know the difference between normal teenaged shenanigans and destructive behavior because they know what's going on.
How do these parents get so savvy? They insist on Family Dinner.
It is true: dinner with teenagers is important, despite their chaotic schedules and desire to avoid us.
In the homes of parents who know their kids, teenagers are required to spend time at the table with adults before spending time on their own. Friends are welcome (and often present); food is simple and plentiful; hats are removed; dishes are passed with gentility; grace is said; electronics are verboten. Above all, robust conversation is required.
Here is how clever parents enforce conversation between the generations:
- They use artificial tactics to structure conversation
- They relax their standards
1. Artificial Conversation Tactics: Table Topics
Several families I know (including mine) stash Table Topics in the dining room. Celebrated by both Oprah and Good Housekeeping (and, I am sorry to say, not a sponsor of mine), these cards force conversation in even the most recalcitrant juvenile. Adults must enforce a pedestrian following of the rules (everyone answers; everyone asks a follow-up question), but usually, something ignites curiosity, controversy, or comedy. Before you know it, those kids are talking.
Six More Ways to Get Teens Talking
Other--equally mundane--ploys abound, of course. For example, parents might require everyone at the table to:
- tell a joke
- give thanks for one thing
- answer a "would you rather" premise
- make a prediction about the next decade
- describe a favorite childhood lunch
- decide where on their body they would place an extra nose
It is best to keep things light and to forgive kids for squirming and being silly; remember, if they're talking, you're winning.
2. Sit back and relax. Listen. Let them talk.
Once they start chattering, we've got to relax our standards. Within the strict boundaries of civilized manners, allow them to converse like the adolescents they are.
Organic conversation happens when we hang back and let teenagers give voice to all the weird, wild expressions of their hormone-infused brain boxes. Here, among the pizza and the Chipotle burritos, is all the intel we need.
Listening to their rambling conversations is how we KNOW, PROTECT and HONOR our almost-grown children. They will tell us what they think is funny, what disgusts them, whom they mistrust and whom they long to be.
As they break bread together, teenagers express unoriginal, incorrect and misguided ideas with the conviction of politicians. Within reason--and within your family's sense of propriety--let them express themselves without correction or judgment.
Chew the fat; bite your tongue. Laugh a Little.
We, the adults, know their ideas are not unique. We know their comedy is (by definition) sophomoric. Let them laugh. Let yourself laugh with them. Let them give voice to their goofiness without shutting them down or minimizing them. Then make them help with the dishes and send them into another room so you can enjoy more intelligent, adult conversation.
Amazing parents out there strike a balance as precarious, magical and ephemeral as spun sugar. They give teenagers freedom to be themselves (their messy, imperfect, full-of-contradiction selves) while maintaining boundaries to keep them safe.
As always, striking the balance with teens is a daily commitment. The parents I admire face each day with flexibility, tenacity, and a sense of humor. Their secret? There are many, of course, but without exception, the parents who inspire me insist on the importance of Family Dinner.
(P.S. We also need to admit our limits; dinner together every single night grows more unlikely with more baroque schedules. When we make it a priority, and when we celebrate the times it does happen, Family Dinner feels more like a treat and less like torture.)