"Mom, have you seen my athletic shoes?" my son Chris frantically called as he raced to catch the school bus. "I gotta have them for practice tonight at 6:30!"
"Don't forget, I have gymnastics at 5:00," chimed Allison.
"Aren't you supposed to bring the refreshments for Scouts tonight?" asked John.
"Oh, no," I groaned, "I forgot—but I'll think of something."
Clutching my notes for a meeting I was already late to, I gave my kids quick hugs as we each headed out the door for a busy day. I knew my husband, John, would be late that night because of an office meeting. I guess we'll just grab supper on the run, I thought, sighing.
We'd been doing a lot of that lately. In fact, I couldn't remember the last time we'd sat down to a relaxed family meal together. We'd fallen into the '90s method of "grab it, zap it, and run" family dinners. I knew things had to change.
Today, too many homes are at risk of becoming more like fast-food restaurants than refuges of security. When we're merely passing our kids at the front door, it's difficult to build a sense of family identity. And especially during the holiday season, it's all too easy to unintentionally slip into the dangerous pattern of rarely being together as a family. How can we recapture the unity and art of family meals?
Set Your Priorities
Family mealtime provides a great opportunity to build a family team, to forge relationships as you communicate over the dinner table, and to thank the Lord together for providing food and other blessings. But if you neglect it, it's more likely your children won't appreciate the importance of this "together time," or even know how to prepare a family meal for their own children one day!
In order to make family meals a priority, you'll need to make some tough choices. It often means saying no to good opportunities, attractive extracurricular events, worthwhile causes, that extra hour at the office, even subtle parental peer pressure that suggests your children should play a sport every season.
Ultimately, you may have to postpone some things you'd really like to do, or curtail some of the activities your children get involved in. But in the long run, strong family relationships and a positive family identity are more important than chairing that fundraiser or having your child play on another team.
Does this mean you need to give up every evening commitment and make your kids drop out of every extracurricular activity? Not necessarily. But it does mean you'll have to determine what's best for your own family and what you have to do in order to ensure you have some family meals together each week. When you have a plan, you'll be less likely to be overcome by "the tyranny of the urgent."
As the New Year approaches, it's a good time to make some changes. Here are some concrete suggestions:
Decide to be together certain nights each week—then do it. Begin with one or two nights if necessary. You and your husband should agree on this policy before talking to your kids. It might not be easy. Kids will complain and you'll have to give up some things yourself. But ask yourself,
Ten years from now, what will have been most important in building our lifelong family relationships—adding an extracurricular activity, or having meals together? It's easy to lose perspective on what's really important and neglect eating together when the pressures of the day eat into our schedules. Be willing to stand firm when different family members protest. You're building for the future.
Put your phone away. In our family of seven, the phone rings nonstop and can rule the dinner hour. Don't answer the phone during mealtime—and teach your kids not to phone others during supper.
Prepare the meal or clean up together. The art of merely enjoying each other's company is often lost if we feel awkward simply sitting and visiting. But when family members work together on a project, good conversations often take place naturally—without having a specific "agenda" to discuss.
Eat at the table facing each other. Sitting at a counter, while convenient at times, doesn't encourage interaction among family members. It's hard to talk to someone you can't see clearly. And don't turn the television on during the meal! It's too easy to focus on the program rather than on each other.
Have everyone come at the same time and remain at the table until everyone's excused. It's simply good manners. One way to make sure your kids remain at the table is to end each meal with a closing prayer or a short devotion.
Ask good questions. If you ask general questions like "How was your day?", you're apt to get a one-word answer: "Fine." Instead, ask specific questions that demand more than a one-word answer, such as: "What was one interesting fact you learned today?" "What was one interesting thing that happened today?" "Did you see God at work today?" "What made you feel happy today?" "Did you do something caring for someone else today?" "Do you have a friend who needs our prayers tonight?"
Our family tries to take about five minutes every morning at breakfast to share what's on everyone's schedule for the day. For example, Chris might have a geometry quiz, Susy a student council meeting, John a business meeting, and so on. We have a brief prayer time together before the mad dash to the school bus. Then dinner time provides the perfect opportunity to check in with each other and find out how everyone's day went.
Make meals a time of celebration. When you celebrate family togetherness, it's an encouragement in today's world of broken relationships. Plan a special dessert, or ask your young children to decorate paper placemats to make mealtime distinctive. Occasionally bring out the good china and linens and eat in the dining room! Spark fun and guesswork at the dinner table by asking trivia questions such as "Where did ice cream come from?" A good source for fun questions is Tell Me Why: Answers to Hundreds of Questions Children Ask by Arkady Leckum.
One family I know spends fifteen minutes after every dinner playing games together. Time spent playing table tennis, charades, or a simple board game with your children is a small investment that reaps big dividends in family relationships.
During the holiday season, it's great to choose one of the many Advent booklets available and adapt their ideas to your family mealtime. Remember, the atmosphere of your dinner hour should be one of a happy celebration.
When we're committed to having family meals, our children get the message that family is important, that we value them and want to spend time with them. And over a period of time, we'll see their relationships with each other grow stronger. But be patient. Your first meals may not be fun. Hang in there, and in time, you'll see a change in your mealtimes and your family relationships.
The real blessings come when your college freshman calls and says, "Mom, I'm coming home this weekend. I want to see some of my friends Saturday night-but I'm looking forward to having a family dinner first!"
Susan Alexander Yates is author of A House Full of Friends (Focus on the Family) and coauthor, with daughter Allison Yates Gaskins, of Tightening the Knot: Couple-Tested Ideas to Keep Your Marriage Strong (Pinon Press). The Yates have five children.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.