Growing up as a Latch Key Kid, I ate my dinners in front of the TV where I watched families like the Huxtables talk about their day around the dinner table. My mother held down two, sometimes three, jobs and was not around much for great swaths of my childhood. Dinner conversations in those days were usually me telling our family dog to stop begging me to share my Dinty Moore stew.
My mother, when not working, spent her free time being actively involved in local and state politics, which often meant that she traveled to conferences and lectures, town hall meetings, and rallies. For her, being well-spoken was as important as wearing a clean shirt and matching her belt with her shoes — her speech was something that was on display. And so she spent a great deal of time explaining to me that how I speak would eventually matter.
For my mother, speech was something that she could use to signal to the world that she was educated, bright, and capable. But for me, speech became a tool that I could use to learn how to listen to people — to learn empathy.
When my husband and I had kids, I vowed that we would not eat in front of the TV and turn into boob-tube zombies. We would eat around the kitchen table and have conversations. Those impulses that my mother had had to teach me the art of speaking well were percolating in me as I stepped into motherhood.
In the beginning, conversations with the kids around the dinner table in our house didn’t go very well. While I wanted very much to teach my young children how to engage in conversation, I clearly had some learning to do myself.
“How was school today?” I would ask our kindergartner. He’d look at me with a bored face while slurping down his pasta and grunt, “good.”
“Did anything interesting happen at school today?” I would ask, eager for more details to flesh out that ‘good’. But I wouldn’t get much of a response.
If you can’t think of anything to talk about, just remember the alphabet was a tip my mother had once given me. She would give me examples like, “…and V is for Voter registration, so you could ask, ‘how are your efforts to increase voter registration in your district going?’” Her alphabet tip was brilliant, but I wasn’t sure how to apply it to a five-year-old child without sounding forced and inauthentic if not altogether confusing. My kids may not have been nuanced in conversation by that point, but they could sure tell when I was faking interest for the sake of making a point.
Over time, I began to approach dinner conversations with my kids as more of a way to bond with them and less of a way to mold them into being well-spoken little people. I couldn’t make them show interest in my latest writing project just like I couldn’t force them to tell me more about their days at school outside of “it was good.”
But then one day, I had an idea.
I dressed up in my fanciest dress, swirled my hair into an updo, and dusted off my high heels. I sat down for dinner dressed more for the opera than for pizza and board game night. My kids were astonished and amused.
“Mom, why are you dressed like that?” I got them with curiosity.
“Well…” I started slowly “I was feeling like being in a new mood so I thought I would try this. What do you think? Too much?” I asked with a mirthful smirk on my face.
“You look weird, Mom.” My oldest said as he stared at me with a confused look on his face. “I mean, what if people saw you dressed like this?”
“If people saw me dressed like this then I would hope they’d compliment my amazing sense of style, darling.” At this point, I started speaking in a horribly botched British accent. I was really playing this up now.
My children broke out into giggles. They couldn’t believe that I would dress with such pomp for a dinner of greasy pizza. Their curiosity begged many questions about how comfortable I was, how silly I must have felt, did I often do goofy things like this…could they also dress in funny clothes for dinner?
What took me by surprise about this encounter was watching my children initiate a conversation with me about what I was doing and how I felt about it. They were so curious that they listened intently to my answers. No, I wasn’t comfortable, but I sure looked fabulous! Yes, of course, I felt silly, who wouldn’t? Sure, they can dress up funny too.
For weeks afterward, we tried to coax fun questions out of each other during dinner by wearing funny hats or showing each other cool projects from school or even playing 20 Questions.
The art of dinner conversation, though learned through unconventional means, has ultimately taught my children that while speaking articulately is important, being curious and compassionate enough to learn about the people around us is more important.
As a mother, this experience in conversations with my kids has solidified the lesson that while a fifty-cent word might appear as dazzling as matching leather belts and shoes; the art of listening and conversing for the sake of bonding and practicing manners and empathy is more valuable and important.