I have an image in mind of the quintessential family dinner. It’s a huge family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, children—packed around a big table passing heaping dishes of steaming food. The room reverberates with chitchat, and laughter sweetens the air along with the culinary aromas.
This scene is becoming less and less a fact of life and more and more like a fairy tale. Not only are families increasingly scattered and tiny, but regular family meals are becoming a rarity.
In his book Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Theodore Dalrymple describes a growing epidemic within Britain: family meals being replaced by uncivilized hunter-gatherer activity. He laments “the breakdown of the family structure—a breakdown so complete that mothers do not consider it a part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator—that promotes modern malnutrition in Britain.”
Children and adults forage and scrounge. They eat fast food on the go. They stealthily snack alone in the company of a television. Maybe you’ve found your own household oven going increasingly unused.
What a missed opportunity.
Even amid the busyness of your day-to-day, your evening meal should be a welcome coming together among family members. It’s your chance to connect, to share, to listen, to laugh. It’s your opportunity to strengthen bonds of unity and love. It’s an occasion for your spouse and children to each see that he or she is a part of something bigger and greater.
It’s also a chance to teach your children, by example, how to eat properly.
The need is certainly great. Just watch schoolchildren eat among themselves—or even with adults present. They tend to engage in some pretty unrefined behavior.
Manners at the table are a small but significant part of politeness, respectability and civility. Children—and adults—need the reinforcement of good table manners that can occur only when a family eats together regularly.
Moved by these thoughts, I recently pulled off my shelf a book that had accumulated quite a bit of dust. Leafing through its pages, I quickly realized it had been sitting unused far too long.
It is called Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette. It was published in 1952; my copy was last updated in 1963. It is only 50 years old—and yet, the rules of social graces it details seem to represent some exotic historical epoch. It helped me realize just how casual and low-minded our culture has become—and how quickly. In America in particular, it seems we pride ourselves on our uncouthness; we exalt the rude and the base.
I found one bit in this book extremely helpful: a list of rules for dinner table conduct that parents should teach children. Here, summarized from Amy Vanderbilt in 1963, are some things we should not do at the table:
There you have it: 13 ways to build tiny bits of civility back into your manner of dining. Soon after reviewing these rules with my children, one of them corrected my wife on the placement of an errant elbow during a meal. I told my daughter it is far more rude for a child to correct an adult than for an elbow to be misplaced.
But that does bring up an obvious but crucial point: The best way to teach these rules is by our example.
And the only way to do that is by eating together, regularly, as a family.