American Essence

Lessons Learned at the Dinner Table

Family time at the dinner table promotes both education and cherished, lifelong memories
TIMEJanuary 20, 2022

Walking bleary-eyed into his kitchen one early morning, our son-in-law met with a beautiful sight: my toddler granddaughter waiting at the kitchen table. “Daddy, I made you a party,” she announced, smiling proudly.

She had indeed! There were flowers on the table; each person’s place had been set with a kiddie plate, napkin, graham crackers, and applesauce cup. The breakfast table was her natural choice to honor her Daddy at this family party. Even at the tender age of 3, she understood the family table to be a place of celebration, honor, and delight. But how did she learn that?

As an infant, she had often fallen asleep in my arms at the dining room table while her parents and we, her grandparents, played round after round of Yahtzee. Early in life, she would insist on participating by holding the Yahtzee cup when it would come around to me—I imagine she thought we were all taking turns shaking a rattle instead of rolling dice.

We ate, played, talked, and worked at that table, all in her presence. When she became old enough to enjoy her very own place, the high chair, though she couldn’t yet speak, she began observing a pattern: one person would talk, and others would listen. Soon she would utter out loud just like everyone else and later learn to wait for her turn. Holiday dinners, family celebrations, and even her first birthday party were held there. Good memories were accumulating in her young mind.

“When asked what my now-grown children remember most about living at home, all of them, without hesitation, answered, ‘Time at the table,’” says great-grandmother Nancy Campbell, speaker on family topics and founder of a now 35-year-old publication supporting family. “It turns out that above all of the things we did as a homeschooling family, our family dinners together had the biggest and most lasting impact.”

Both born in New Zealand, she and her husband, Colin, took a work assignment in Australia where they began their family traditions. An original farm-to-table family, the Campbells approached the making of dinner as a team sport; some would gather and wash the vegetables, while others would prepare and serve them at a table set by yet other siblings. The family members had their own regular spot at the table where they would nightly take their time eating and catching up with each other, and then later cooperate to clean up. In the early 1990s, the family immigrated to the United States where they still gather regularly on their farm for multi-generational meals in which one generation serves the other, and where a larger family bond is formed.

The American College of Pediatrics reports that family time at the dinner table has declined by more than 30 percent over the past three decades, which is a problem because family meals greatly affect child development and well-being. Children who come from families who sit down to eat dinner together 5 to 7 times per week show a 40 percent trend toward higher grades in school, earning more A’s and B’s than children from families who eat together only 3 or 4 times per week. In addition, drug abuse is also considerably less present in children whose families sit down to dinner together frequently and regularly.

The family table is an integral part of the lives of most homeschooling families. Much more than eating goes on there—it’s also the heart of the schoolroom.

“Real education isn’t necessarily in the books,” says respected Tennessee home-education mentor, Holland Kinney. “We have fun with it. If we’re eating fish and chips, we listen to English or Irish music; or if we are eating Italian, we listen to Italian music, and so forth. There’s always a candle at the table for atmosphere. We’ve created a music playlist for our Saturday morning breakfasts, featuring all of our favorite music. Also, the children create seasonal displays on their kiddie table and enjoy making centerpieces.

When they learned about Johnny Appleseed and were reading the “Little House on the Prairie” series, they baked cloved apples and other historic apple recipes. “It helped the stories come to life for the children while providing a nice family dessert,” says Holland.

Most afternoons, the Kinney students enjoy tea and poetry at the table where they’ve developed enough appreciation to memorize and recite it—which led to their eldest child, a rising first-grader, reciting publicly for an audience at an open-mic night.

The Kinney family has also found table time to be conducive to art appreciation. Famous paintings and biographies of the artists’ lives are featured each week. A copy of the work is displayed, and each child produces her own rendition of the work using varying art materials. This led to another surprising accomplishment.

“Most recently, we enjoyed writing and illustrating a book together about Pops, their grandfather, who loves to chase and tickle and play. The ideas and art came from the children, while the structure came from the adults.”

Utah psychiatrist Dr. B. Todd Thatcher advocates for family time. “Families that spend dinner together have all sorts of lower rates of bad things that can happen to their kids. It has to do with taking that time to show interest in your kids’ lives.

“Children need the adults that are in their lives. They need their teaching, guidance, love, acceptance.”

A Cigna study from the American Journal of Health Promotion indicated that excessive social media use is one of the biggest risk factors for loneliness.

“Spending family time improves mental health … helps children perform better academically … and lowers the risk of behavioral issues. … If a child feels comfortable bringing problems to you, they will be better equipped to cope with problems and make better choices.”

Emily Elliott, a former Kentucky public school teacher currently home-educating her children, says that she draws inspiration from Sally Clarkson, a prolific author on child-rearing.

Emily speaks about the impact Sally Clarkson has had on her family life. “I have always considered the kitchen to be one of my primary domains. I’ve worked hard to develop and refine my abilities to manage and cultivate my kitchen well. As the years have passed and children have been added to our sweet family, I’ve had to prayerfully consider ways to approach my table that supply me with renewed vision and energy.

“In her book ‘The Life Giving Table,’ Sally says, ‘The table is a vehicle for spiritual influence, godly mentoring, and true connection of hearts and minds,’” Emily says. “Small plans took root, and I started planning activities to do with my children at breakfast and at dinner. It started with teaching them a hymn and how to pray at the breakfast table, and morphed into playing games of “pits and cherries” at dinner with dad. When my 6-year-old shares something that hurts her feelings (her pit), my husband and I are able to share her sadness and comfort her with life-giving words. Sally Clarkson helped me see that opportunity at the table.

“When I listen to my 3-year-old sing ‘My Hope is Built on Nothing Less’ over his bowl of steaming oatmeal glistening with a kiss of brown sugar, I feel the sense that it’s worth the trouble—waking up early to watch over a simmering bowl of oats while I groggily sip my morning coffee.”

At a time when American family dinners have—due to pandemic shutdowns—re-emerged from the separation that busyness brings, this thought from Sally Clarkson’s book rings truth: “One of the greatest strengths of a family table comes from the knowledge that no matter what we do, no matter how we fail, we have a place to belong, a place where we will be forgiven, and a place where we will still be loved and welcomed.”

Boston University Journalism graduate Evelyn Glover has traveled the world with her college-sweetheart husband of 34 years. They homeschooled their two children and currently reside near their grandchildren in Franklin, Tennessee, where they pursue and teach many varied arts: writing, cooking, painting, needlework, piano, and (lately) cello.