Dinnertime conversations, free from distractions, made me the person I am today.
Growing up we had a strict rule that Friday night was family night. The evening always started with a family dinner, followed by a board game or my father and older brother playing guitar by the fireplace. We knew as children to reject Friday night invitations to sleepovers, sports practice, and school dances, because it was family time and we were really ok with that. At its core, this was a religious ritual. I grew up in a conservative Jewish household where Friday nights were the beginning of our day of rest. But there was something beyond religion that made these customary evenings stick out in my youth.
Though our tradition stemmed from the religious practice, we formed the evening into an experience unique to us. For the entire night, the four of us came together without the distraction of our cell phones, computers, and televisions for an evening of discussion. I came home from school, helped my mother set the table and finish cooking, and we all paused our lives to just be together. It was a clear, safe space to share our thoughts and feelings from the week. My dad presented problems he was having at work, my brother and I would add commentary on what we were learning in classes, as my mom asked how we liked the new chicken recipe. The conversations spanned from as tame as the new murder mystery book my mom was reading to our deep, personal views on marriage and equality.
These very real, adult conversations, started at a young age, allowed my brother and me to feel comfortable discussing everything and anything with my parents. After dinner, we often sat in our living room to continue our conversations. We shared things with my parents most adults would never have the ability to discuss with their children. I remember on more than one occasion my parents asking me about a relationship or a fight I had with a friend. But to me, these topics weren't prying or annoying. I was accustomed to sharing this information with them, if not happy to discuss my personal issues with people I trusted.
The earliest memory I have of our Friday night dinnertime conversations is sitting around the table talking about charity. Every week, my dad brought out a handful of non-profit organization pamphlets between the dinner and dessert course. He made a case for each of the charities, explaining why they were important and relevant to our lives. At the end, the four of us voted on which we would donate to that week. I recall this process bringing up not only a bit of debate around the dinner table, but in hindsight I can see how it shaped my views on tons of social issues. How many young kids had the opportunity to talk about saving pigs who suffered from factory farming or homeless, battered women living in shelters? My parents found a unique way to not only help us become aware of these issues, but nurtured an ability to discuss really tough topics.
I look back and think of all the valuable skills I must have picked up during these conversations. I learned to wait my turn to speak and to consider another person's side of an argument. By setting aside one day to be together, I learned to stop and enjoy a moment during a hurried week. No excuses and no exceptions. Plus, my brother and I truly understand what it means to be a kind dinner guest. I was taught how to set a proper table, and to help the host with cleanup after a meal. I most definitely attribute my love for food and cooking to these conversations over dinner, and on more than one occasion I was able to contribute my own recipes to the meal.
Beyond Friday night dinners, we tried our best to all sit together when we ate throughout the week. Any time we ate together as a family on a weeknight, we followed a similar protocol. The television went off while there was food on our plates, and especially as we got older our telephones stayed silenced and away. Even though we are both now in our 20's, my brother and I abide by the same guidelines beyond my parents' table. Conversations during dinner have guided us to become not only a better dinner guests in others' homes, but more respectful people. In a time when technology surrounds us, we have the skills and attention span to not touch our cell phone at every given moment. We can be truly be present, and that's a gift I can't thank my parents for enough.
Sure, as we got older the rules relaxed a little. We'd finish a Friday night dinner to call it quits by 10 pm, with ample time for me to watch a Netflix show or two. I skipped out on family dinners to attend a high school prom, and the occasional weekend at a friend's place in high school. But now that my brother and I are adults on our own, I'm grateful any time I sit down to a meal that my parents raised us this way. When I visit home, there's no question where I'll be on Friday night. When I'm away from them, the start to my weekend always feels a little bit empty without those dinners.
You don't have to be a large family or religious to bring these traditions into your own home. It simply takes setting a good example by having everyone log off the Internet and check in to crucial family time. By creating this habit, we made a safe space to share together and my parents crafted a memory I'll take to my own future family. They captured a family bond that can't be replicated, and I am eternally grateful for those Friday nights together.