One of the rock-ribbed, non-negotiable rules of my family, as I was growing up, was that if you were home and not sick, you were expected to be in your seat for supper. This rule wasn’t open for discussion or debate. When my mom and dad sat down to eat, their three boys were to be washed up, dressed appropriately and sitting in their seats. We didn’t have TV dinner tables or meals on the go. We didn’t have half of the family eating off of the kitchen counters or in the station-wagon as we were en route to this practice or that meeting. The family table was the one place where we knew that our family would have time together to catch up, share, pray and learn.
Now, don’t misunderstand, that doesn’t mean that it was always a quiet and calm time around the Whitt family table. We certainly weren’t the Cleavers. In fact, most evenings around our table were rather loud and very active. There were tales to be told, explanations to be given, and instructions to receive and obey – all while passing the plates and bowls around the table. My father sat at the head of the table and refereed the event and our discussions – and his decision was final.
Two of the more interesting rules of the Whitt family table was that you ate what was prepared, and you couldn’t have second helpings of anything until your first plate was clean. This was a well-intentioned and reasonable expectation that my parents set for us boys. It taught us to eat things that we might not have eaten otherwise. It also meant that we weren’t just filling up on the things that we liked and while refusing to eat the other foods which were most likely healthier for us. These rules did, however, produce an unexpected result. We learned to eat fast – really fast. As a matter of fact, most of the time I never even tasted the first plate. But I was a growing boy, there was only so much food and three boys trying to eat as much as we could, so we learned to eat very quickly.
One of the best things about the Whitt family table was the time that my parents spent in prayer and the Bible. I’ll never forget as a young boy the presence of a little plastic loaf of bread sitting in the middle of the table with a hundred or so little cards with scripture verses on them. We would work through one card each week, memorizing and quoting the verse, talking about what it meant and how it should affect our lives. Then we would spend some time praying for each other, friends or family members who were going through tough times, church members who were sick or hurting and those who we knew that didn’t know Jesus.
It was one of the best, most profitable, things that my parents did for us boys, and it has made a deep, meaningful and eternal difference in my life. It is also one of the things that I am committed to passing on to my children.
So, with that in mind, I thought I might share some very simple suggestions on how to make the most out of this very important time in your family’s day.
1. Turn off the TV. This is one rule that our children learned at a very young age. They know that we don’t sit down to eat until the TV is turned off. There are several reasons for this. First, it allows for an uninterrupted time of discussion and attention. It also teaches that what is said and done at the table is more important than what’s being said or done on the television. One of the best decisions you’ll make, other than setting aside time and making the family dinner table a priority in your family, is to simply press the power button and turn the TV off during suppertime.
2. Turn off the cell phone. The cellphone has invaded virtually every place and time in our lives. There is virtually no place or time that is not subject to interruption and distraction by the ringing, chirping, playing, buzzing or whatever of these things that we didn’t have a decade or so ago, but can’t live without today. Turn it off. There’s nothing that can’t wait until you have finished your time together at the table with your family.
3. Don’t teach manners at the table. Teach them beforehand. Also, this is not the time to morph into “the Manners Gestapo.” I’m not saying that you can’t give a simple, gentle reminder if there is some blatant disregard for proper table manners. However, this is to be a positive, productive time together as a family. Don’t turn it into a family feud.
4. Make sure everybody does their part. A rule we had as we were growing up was that the one who cooked didn’t clean. So, my brothers and I would be responsible for cleaning the table off and getting the dishes in the sink. Then we would all help make sure the dishes were washed and set out to dry. Then, once they were dry, they were put in their places in the cabinets. Notice we didn’t just throw them in the dishwasher. Oh, we had a dishwasher – us – and we all took turns washing the dishes by hand.
5. View your “table time” as “prime time.” With today’s busy schedules and the increasing pressure and strain on families, this simple family discipline will become one of the most important and rewarding decisions you will make as parents. There will be no better place to teach the Scriptures, family values, and virtues, and connect in a real and meaningful way. Take advantage of this time together and pass this practice on to your children and grandchildren.