by Marie Bellet
The most powerful agent for raising Catholic children and immunizing ourselves against the anti-family culture that surrounds us is the nightly family dinner. This regular meeting conveys that no matter what happens to you today, your family will be there at the end of the day, to love you and remind you of what really matters. When dads make it a priority to be home for dinner, the kids know that the family is important!Even though everyone is tired at this time of day and it’s tempting to just “get it over with,” we should remember that it is not just about the food. Everyone should look forward to getting home and being together. We need to put some personality into it! This conveys to everyone that family is top priority. The regular ritual of the family dinner is the building block for knowing each other well, showing care and consistency, and giving kids a concrete expectation for unity and fidelity.Family dinners are also a great time to teach basic manners. Many teens chew with their mouths open, talk with food in their mouths, and do not look adults in the eye when they speak. This is a clear sign that they do not have family dinners or conversations with adults. It puts kids at a real disadvantage in the adult world. You should expect good manners. That means no interrupting, no monopolizing the conversation and no bad language. It also means having the self-control to listen. Teach this by doing. Your kids should take turns, say “please” and “thank you.” They should not grab, yell or talk about gross things. They should wait to be excused before leaving the table and refrain from eating until dad says grace. In fact, dad might even have to moderate the conversations until the kids learn to be civilized.Dinner conversations can be pretty chaotic when kids are young, but as they get older, the art of conversation has to be developed. Conversations should not be administrative or disciplinary. This is a sacred time to talk about the issues of the day, movies, politics, how people treat each other at school and how to interpret what is going on. This helps kids make sense of what they have seen and heard, to put things into a larger context. This is also a time to develop a charitable sense of humor and remind each other to avoid gossip. Discuss what is going on in their lives and yours in terms of the values you are teaching.Nightly dinners must be maintained and guarded. What used to be considered “the precious dinner hour” has all but disappeared for most families today. After school or work meetings and sport team practices are routinely scheduled at the same time that families used to gather together to reconnect and recharge over a family meal. We must make a valiant effort to reclaim this time, giving the family and our commitment to raising Catholic children the top priority. Strong families do not just accidentally happen while everyone is minding their own business. We must fight hard against the temptation to “do everything” and to sacrifice family life as the most central and satisfying aspect of our lives.Many young adults today do not really respect and know their parents because they did not take the time to look at each other, know each other, share each other’s burdens, and challenge each other. The family dinner is that time! Don’t waste the opportunity. Let them hear your struggles and know your stories. They really want to hear about your childhood, your triumphs and failures, the characters in your family. This will connect them to you and your values. Tell them of the heroic everyday sacrifices that have gone before. Let them know that they are part of a bigger picture that made them who they are. Seeing themselves in the larger context of the flawed, eccentric but still loveable family tree will give them the courage to risk failure.The family dinner is the constant that creates and strengthens family culture. It is a time of sharing, listening, forgiveness and humor. It provides the warmth and perspective to drown out the shallow pop culture.