If I ever write a play, there will be no set except for one table haloed with chairs in the center stage.
I am grateful for having married my husband for many reasons, but the most important reason was because he introduced me to a strong family culture, and in the center of that culture stood a table.
You see, I married into a first-generation 100% Italian family. My husband is third generation and still 100% Italian. There are traditions that make their family culture, and what holds that culture together is the table.
Now I, by comparison, am mud. My Nana was second-generation Irish, my Papa was second-generation German, and my father was 100% Brazilian and my step-father is English and Swedish. There was no single culture we clung to that formed our family identity.
When you marry into a strong Italian family culture? Conform or die, people. Conform or die. And I was all too happy to conform. I was utterly delighted to conform, honestly, and not just because my heart was so much my husband’s, but because the fruit of that family culture was evident in everything they did. From the way they dressed to the way they ate to how they celebrated and most importantly, it formed their love and deep loyalty. I have never, ever seen such loyalty, and truly, it is beautiful. How do loyalty and family culture like that affect us? My husband’s two best friends are from grammar school. He works with one of them every day, and we see the other every chance we get. When we sit around a table with our children, it always startles me with such pleasure that this is the stuff that life is made of. This is the poetic that we strive for.
That table culture was what I noticed when he brought me home the first time, and it was my most important mission once we started having children. Of course with my husband’s help (he who had been raised in it and knew of no other way and to whom it was the same as if he were breathing), it was easier for me, but this culture is not beyond you who might also be mud like myself. It’s something you create and curate. It has nothing to do with what heritage you are, although some heritages have a stronger table culture than others.
It’s easy to just say that you need to have dinner together every night, but it’s not that simple. I know many families who had dinner every night and yet never grow a strong family culture. Why? Because the sitting down to dinner is just the tool – you have to learn to talk to each other while there. Eating and conversing together can be sacramental things that grow you in intimacy, or they can be be utterly torturous. I’m sure most of us have had a torturous meal with someone. Why would we want to subject our families to that? I don’t want my kids to ever say, “I have to go masticate with the ‘Rents.” I want them to love to come to dinner at our house, now and forevermore. You have to build that word upon word, day by day, year by year.
So how do you start?
First, eating together in our house is never a chore. It is always seen as special and a joy. Cooking can sometimes be a chore, but that is what happens when I’m not prepared, and over the years I’ve learned how to cook, so both of those things can be quite manageable with some forethought.
We also have never had a children’s table and never ever fed the kids earlier so that we could have dinner by ourselves. We made these little people. We didn’t make them to set them off to the side, away from us. We made them so that we could grow in love as a unit. If, for some reason, the kids couldn’t eat with us (baby is going through a growth spurt and needed to eat at a time where they weren’t going to be hungry when dinner was served), they would still come to the table and share with us. The meal is the tool. I’ve also been known to nurse many a baby at our dinner table. It’s mealtime, after all!
We never demanded a lot of conversation of our children when they were young, but we did converse with them, never talking down to them and always asking follow up questions. Being your own children, you never have to pretend to be interested in their thoughts and stories. Delight is hard to feign, and a child can sniff out insincerity a mile away.
As they grew, conversations became deeper and more interesting, but this is a natural progression of being brought into mommy’s and daddy’s conversations. Politeness demands we never interrupt, but they were always free to offer their opinion or an anecdote.
Another thing that I learned was to linger over your meal. So many of us eat as if we had to catch a plane in the next few minutes! Where’s the fire? Enjoy your family. Enjoy their presence. You sit not only to eat but to share, to communicate, and to grow in intimacy. This is not the place for answers like fine and good or chats about the weather. Soon enough they’ll be gone, and you’ll have missed so much if you were rushing them away so that you could Do the Next Thing. And the lesson they’ll have learned is that they were not as important as whatever it was you had to go do.
If you can’t have dinner together every night of the week, start with one day. Sunday, at the least. Make a dessert. Linger.
I’m sure many of you are wondering what any of this has to do with homeschooling. Nothing. And everything. My ability to have deep literature discussions with my kids grew out of our having conversations over dinner. Family dinner is even more important to a family that doesn’t homeschool, but for the family who can homeschool, that love, loyalty, and conversation flow into every other subject we tackle at home. It makes learning not something that happens between the hours of 8 and 3, but something that happens all day, every day, with every member of the family.
So, what are you having for dinner tonight?
Briana Elizabeth has been at this homeschool gig since her 23 year old son was in 7th grade, and his psychiatrist told her that he had to be homeschooled. Her son never went back to public school that year, and the following year, she pulled her 4th grade daughter out of public school. Her five other children have all been homeschooled entirely. It was baptism by fire, but she wouldn’t trade it for the world. Through the years, she has in the end, not only educated her children, but herself, and homeschooling has brought about a whole paradigm change of living for her family. The education that had seemed only possible for the elite was possible through classically homeschooling.