One of the highlights of our family life is the evening meal – it is a time where we all come together (those of us who are home) and sit and relax together. It is a time where we catch up with each other and a time where we encourage, support, and challenge each other’s thinking. Our evening meal has been central to building like hearts and a biblical worldview in our kids.
This doesn’t happen though just because we eat together. Simply eating together does create memories, and maybe a sense of family identity (presuming they are happy times around the table) but we wanted this to be a time that built up our children. When there is a goal or dream you have for your family you need to be intentional, and not leave it to chance.
As I look back, here are some of the things that I believe helped us create this atmosphere in our home at dinner time:
- Keep my expectations age appropriate. This started with the toddlers and pre-schoolers – I fed them early and Peter and I ate by ourselves. This was not the season for indepth discussions. This was the season for teaching them to eat food – and they couldn’t do that if they were so tired and ready for bed by the time they came to the table. So remember the season of development each of your children is in, and don’t stretch them beyond their abilities – it only makes reaching your goals harder.
- I refused to fight over food. They ate what was in front of them, in a timely manner but if they didn’t I didn’t cajole, or threaten, or wait them out. I did help them when they were overwhelmed or struggling so that they could finish in a timely way, but I wanted meal times to be a fun time where we were together. They were allowed to talk during the meal but they weren’t allowed to ‘hog’ the conversation – as they gave room for others to speak, this gave them time to eat!
- Once all the kids were eating with the family, we had a set time for dinner – 6.00pm. This isn’t rigid, and these days it often gets pushed to 6.30pm. But everyone is on the ready to be called for dinner at that time.
- The house is cleaned, and kids are bathed ready for family time/dinner time. We start job time at 5.00 giving us enough time to cook dinner, clean up, shower and look after pets.
- I have a cut off time in my mind for us to get up from the table – this certainly is only something I keep in my mind, but we can get so caught up enjoying each other that bedtime is delayed – and though with older kids that isn’t always a bad thing, when they were younger we had to watch this.
There was a time where I became distracted and started seeing dinner as the last chore on my to-do list. This happened when my kids were 6-8ish where conversations started to get to the heart of things. I had taken my eyes off the goal, and dinner started to be about the food – and yes we talked, but make it snappy!
I read a book called, Making Room for Life by Randy Frazee, and it divided our day into three parts: Relationships, Rest, Work. I was reminded that our dinner time was a relational time, it was family time. I was also challenged that I treated meal times differently when we had guests; I was much more relaxed and prepared to give of myself. This also reflected on how much effort I put into preparing for this time together. In response to this challenge I started setting the table with a candle to remind me to slow down and enjoy this family time. (This isn’t happening now, but it was a part of my changing my heart and mindset.)
One of the things that I do is I prepare for family conversation; as I said, if you have a goal you need to be intentional about and not leave it to chance. I want my family to talk about things not just pass the time of day. It is important that we catch up with each other, that we make room for people to share the highs and lows, that we commend and praise people’s efforts and comfort them in their struggles. But this can become rather repetitive – tell me what you learnt today, tell me your highlight or lowlight, what book are you reading, what are you looking forward to doing – these are good questions to ask our kids, and to share answers ourselves as well, but we can also dig deeper.
As I work in that hour before dinner – I start to think about what we could talk about. I review what is going on in family life, and see if there is anything there that I can harvest as an idea to focus on – it might be a book that I know someone has just finished reading, it may be a conversation I had with one of the kids, or something I know we’ve seen on facebook. It may be a news report, or a happening in the town. It may be a Bible verse or a character trait. It may be a quote I read, or a song I’ve heard sung, a movie we’ve seen. Toastmasters have ‘Table Topics’ – just Google it – and you’ll find a huge resource of topics to bring to your family conversations. There is any number of topics we can talk about. Another resource that we’ve found helpful when I run dry is “TOAC – The Art of Conversation”, a Australian made card game which offers a variety of topics to talk about, and encourages listening and asking questions so conversation can develop.
Bringing a topic to the table is one thing, but then letting a conversation happen is another. As parents we can quickly fall into the mode of teaching (aka lecturing) and we think we are sharing our heart, and that is the way to impact our kids’ hearts. But there is another way, and a way that I think brings more fruit and that is to facilitate a conversation (not a lecture).
We can present a topic by saying:
- I was reading this today…I saw this, heard this, was thinking this….
- What do you think? … Anyone know anything about this? …
- I want us to think about this tonight…
Ask them for their input and then ask them why they think that. Always prompt them to think deeper or prove their thoughts. Ask them to line up their opinion with the Bible. We have to watch that this doesn’t come like a school room where the kids are being grilled, or shooting them a quick 20 questions. It needs to be conversational. Think about a conversation you’ve had with a friend, a conversation where you were encouraged or edified in some way. Someone presented a topic somehow: they shared a thought, and then you engaged about that thought for a time. This is what we want with our kids.
I don’t always leave it at their opinions – there is a problem with group think conversations. Sometimes the group may well agree with something, and yet that doesn’t make it right. My goal isn’t to confirm my children’s thinking whatever they think, my goal is to give them space to voice their thoughts, to think out loud, to listen to other people’s thoughts, to be probed to think deeper and to listen to input from other people as well.
One caution though is to learn when enough is enough. A conversation can be timely, thought provoking, relevant, and poignant without lasting for 30minutes. Sometimes we talk about 3 different things, as we chase what seems to be rabbit trails, other times we have one meaningful conversation and then the rest is just silly family fun. And to be honest, not every family meal is wrapped up with deep thinking – some are purely silly crazy laughter. But it is always in the back of my mind to keep this opportunity alive.
My ultimate goal is to build their belief system. But I know my kids will tune out with a lecture (as most kids will). I want to thinking about things to be a normal part of life, I want to refer to God’s word, the Bible as a regular reference in our conversations, I want them to defend their beliefs – and I can establish this pattern of thinking and engaging with thought by modelling, and getting the kids to actually engage on a regular basis – and what is more regular than our evening meal time!
Originally published as a weekly newsletter, Live Life with your Kids, Newsletter.