Research shows that children in families who routinely have dinner together do better than those who don’t. They get better grades, do fewer drugs, and are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy — or go to jail. That’s great, but it isn’t really what you’d call an action plan. Once you get everyone’s butt in a chair, and you put dinner on the table, then what?
I suppose if you’re Irish, you can sit around telling beguiling stories in lyrical accents, passing them down from one generation to the next. I’m Chinese — we didn’t do that. My brothers and I dove for the food as soon as my parents shoved it in front of us, and we didn’t come up for air until the last scraps were devoured. Conversation wasn’t a prominent feature of our dinner table.
I’m guessing that many of us had parents like mine, who weren’t really interested in what we were doing unless it was something we weren’t supposed to do. That’s why we’re so determined to act differently with our own kids. We want to be the involved, engaged, enmeshed (oops, strike that) parents that we never had. So naturally, when we sit down to dinner, we ask them questions.
Sometimes they’re open-ended, as in: “How was school today?” (Popular answers: “Okay.” “Same as always.” “It’s Saturday.”) Other times, they’re meant to guide and motivate: “Did you do your homework yet?” (“Yup.” “It’s not due.” “It’s summer.”) And sometimes, we try to spark meaningful discussion: “What do they teach you in that sex ed class, anyway?” (“Nothing.” “What do you think?” “Eeeuuuwww!”)
The problem is that we tend to ask questions that interest us. What we should be doing is figuring out what questions interest them.
There’s a family I know who have done exactly that. And rather than the parents always interrogating the kids, they share the asking and the answering equally. Whenever they sit down to dinner, the first three questions are always the same, and everyone takes them on. Gradually, those questions have affected not only their dinner conversations, but the way they look at their lives. Let’s consider them one at a time:
“When were you brave today?” Like David Copperfield, each of us wonders whether or not we will turn out to be the hero of our own story, and every day we write that story anew. By retelling these small moments of persistence in the face of uncertainty and fear, we reinforce our own grit. That gives us the confidence to do it again. Courage is a muscle: it gets stronger if you use it every day.
“When were you kind today?” Too often, we treat kindness as a personality trait. We say that one person is kind, and another is not, as if each received a finite ration of kindness at birth. But the truth is, every one of us has the capacity for both kindness and cruelty, and ultimately both are measured in acts, not temperament. If we want a kinder world, then we should shine a light on each other’s acts of kindness whenever we can.
“When did you make a mistake?” We love our kids’ success. Sometimes we crave it like a drug — as if it could heal the wounds of our own failures. It can’t. And the more we focus on success, the more we send the message that that is what we value in our kids, and in ourselves. If you really want to succeed, you have to overcome the fear of failure, and the only way to do that is to fail: early, often, and sometimes spectacularly. If you learn to get up afterward and dust yourself off, and use your failure as the launching pad for your next attempt, you’ll go much further than if you hide your mistakes in shame.
Notice that all of these questions work just as well for adults as for kids. Children pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we can model courage, kindness and resilience for them, they’ll learn more from us than if we just encourage these traits. And often, it will be their stories that end up inspiring and teaching us.
In the end, the spirit in which we ask these questions is more important than the questions themselves. People thrive in the light of curiosity, like plants beneath the sun, and the leaves that get that light are the ones that grow. We can shine it wherever we want. “What filled you with wonder today?” “What surprised you?” “When were you happy, or angry, or sad?”
If nothing else, it forces us to decide what’s important — important enough to examine closely and carefully. Important enough to share.
Jeff Lee makes his daughters say “Eeeuuuwww!” on a regular basis in Seattle