You must make it happen. There is NO OTHER WAY. The evening family meal is restorative; it provides time, space, food, and companionship for soothing the rough patches created by the demands of both this day, and of the day anticipated tomorrow. It helps cement people together and organize the family as a team. Table time as a family is for discovery too. We share our experiences and the things we’ve learned, and can discuss whether our responses to particular situations were the right ones.
When our daughter began fourth grade at a new school she encountered her first bully. Week after week, we spent time as a family, almost always at the dinner table, discussing what the bully said today, how she acted on the bus, and what we, as a family should do about it. We prayed together. My husband and I advised our daughter to adopt a “kill the situation with kindness” attitude, but not because we wanted to teach her non-confrontation. On the contrary, we felt that intentionally-responsive smiles and kind words on our daughter’s part comprised precisely the type of loving confrontation Jesus would have practiced. At first, our daughter’s responses only infuriated this bully to grander displays of meanness (all verbal), but, to give her credit, our daughter persevered and trusted that this decision, made as a family at the dinner table, was the right course of action. We also counseled our daughter to try her hardest to imagine what could make another little girl so angry and mean, and to pray for her to experience the joy of a changed heart. Was this bully unloved at home? Was she sad? Did she really just need a friend and not know, socially, how to make one? Our daughter prayed for this girl for many weeks. Eventually, the bullying stopped. Our daughter learned that responding in kind is never as good as responding with kindness. She learned that some people are unloved and unloving. She learned to pray for an enemy, and to ask for prayer. And, she learned that, as a family, we took her problem seriously and were concerned for the outcome. All in the intimacy of the family table.
This helps demonstrate how a shared family meal is powerfully generative, meaning that it has the power to produce, or generate a way of thinking, acting, and responding to circumstances. In particular, children learn from the adults at the table not only civilized table manners and social customs, but about life and death, good and evil, right and wrong. In short, the table is a place for a child to observe what it means to be an adult. For believers, this becomes even more significant, because this is our shared practice for learning what it means to be a man, woman, child, and family of God.
It is also deep mystery how shared table time as a routine practice helps children develop a healthy attitude toward ritual and tradition. It has a potent and lifelong carryover effect on their sense of family and belief, acting as a liturgy of sorts for creating that daily rhythm of how a flourishing family life should flow. And, in this day and age, when culture kidnaps our children at younger and younger ages, this table time protects them. The physical food they eat with us is a symbol of God’s ever-present provision, help and sustenance. This family table is the place we can teach our children what we know of God, and where they can watch us live that love out.
 This particular eight year-old girl was not a physical threat, nor did she act as part of a larger group of bullies picking on our daughter, and this happened before social networking made e-bullying a reality. This little girl was just miserably mean. One reason we monitored the situation so closely each night at the supper table was to discern if adult intervention was called for. But, we also wanted our daughter to learn to positively handle life’s challenges on her own with God’s help and wisdom.
Until next time!
Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.