Growing up in the ’70s, I sat down to a family dinner that was consistent with my parents’ child-rearing philosophy at the time, which my mother likes to call “benign neglect.” Over dinner, my father briefed my mother on the ins and outs of his day at the office, while my siblings and I zoned out or piped up or fought over why my older sister always got the corner seat. We sat down as a family to a good, healthy meal, but dinner was not what you would call child-centric — which was fine with us, and definitely fine with them.
Dinner with our closest family friends, at whose home I stayed when my parents traveled, veered in a different direction altogether. After an elegant, home-cooked dinner, the father of the family’s three boys would put down his fork, address one of his sons by name, and start talking about trains, planes or automobiles — one was going so many miles an hour, while another, moving at a different rate, was leaving from a different coast. When would they meet up? The boys all found these oral math games entertaining, and so did I, until the father posed one of those questions to me, at which point my mind went blank for one long minute before I finally burst into tears.
Because of the cultural whiplash I experienced in regularly attending two remarkably different family meals, I have always been fascinated by the range of conversations that pass for normal at other people’s homes at mealtime: what rituals and rules of discourse do parents invent, to what conventions do they default or aspire?
Franklin Foer, editor at large for The New Republic and the brother of the writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Joshua Foer, recalls his childhood meals as freewheeling affairs where the only rule was that everyone show up. “We were never asked, ‘What did you do today?’ ” Franklin Foer said. His father, a lawyer who served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, led his children in debates about economic policy and civil rights issues, but with an open ear: a conversation about Reagan’s Star Wars policies might lead to a discussion about “why we couldn’t build a giant shield over the United States out of Legos,” Mr. Foer said, recalling also that “scatological humor was encouraged at our dinner table.”
If the Foer family dinner sounds like the South Park version of what the Kennedy families once did — expecting children to come to meals prepared to discuss current events — the Emanuel family sounds more like the Fight Club version of the same. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago; Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood agent; and Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist, came to dinner, at their mother’s insistence, ready to discuss the issues of the day; Rahm Emanuel has described the ensuing debates as “gladiatorial.”
But Ezekiel Emanuel, now a professor and vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, clarified that things never actually became violent. “Lots of screaming but no fistfights,” he said.
The emphasis at his own family’s meals, which he and his now ex-wife shared with their children at breakfast and dinner, was less about preparation for public life and more of an opportunity for family members to tune into one another’s affairs. “We’d go around the table, and everyone reported how their day went,” said Mr. Emanuel, whose youngest is now 21. Meals started with a Jewish blessing; as for formal discussions of politics, “We were not stilted,” he said. Nor were they fighting furiously: “We had three girls,” he explained. “It’s different.”
Aiming high for mealtime conversation can be a family tradition — or a way of giving children something the parents wished they themselves had had. When Howard Gordon, the co-creator of “Homeland,” was growing up, “dinner tended to be quick and not one that emphasized conversation,” he said. With his own family, he hoped for more, which proved a challenge.
“It wasn’t as easy as just legislating that every dinner was going to be meaningful,” said Mr. Gordon, whose oldest son is now 18 and in college, and whose other children are 15 and 7. He has tried to introduce serious subjects of debate, ideas about the redistribution of wealth or taxation, into conversation. “More often than not, my kids were like, ‘Oh, God, do we have to do this?’ ” he said. “My attempts at meaning were transparent, and failed sometimes. But with a little elbow grease, if you picked the right subject, something would happen.”
Amy Chua, the Yale Law professor who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” the controversial chronicle of her own overambitious parenting technique, said her immigrant parents imparted to her a passion for academics — but not over dinner. “We did not say one word,” she recalled. Eating and television news dominated the meal.
In her own home, she said, she and her husband, the law professor Jed Rubenfeld, try to devote about half the meal to catching up on their children’s lives and the other half to “bringing up interesting cases with moral dilemmas.” (Example: If one of us committed a crime, would you turn us in?) “I felt like, let’s not just gossip about stupid stuff,” Ms. Chua said. “I wanted them to be more cultured and have deeper thoughts.”
Such ambitions are not the purview of tiger mothers alone. Actually getting the meal on the table and coordinating overbooked schedules is enough of a struggle that when family dinner does happen, a parent could be forgiven for having high expectations — a moment of connection, at last, that justifies the effort.
“A big part of the challenge is teaching your kids how to have a real conversation, not a texting conversation,” said Laurie David, a producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” who has since devoted her considerable advocacy skills to encouraging more stimulating mealtimes. “If they’re not sitting down at the table, the art of conversation is going to go.”
Ms. David’s 2010 book, “The Family Dinner,” includes almost as many discussion starting points as it does recipes, and she now posts regular topics of conversation on The Huffington Post, under the rubric “Table Talk.” (A recent example, inspired by Jeremy Lin: Why do we love an underdog? Have you ever been an underdog?)
What Jacqueline Kennedy did for the triple strand of pearls, the Obama family has done for the thorn and the rose, a mealtime ritual, simple and fail-safe, in which each family member talks about his or her low and high point of the day.
But the tradition has been around for longer than the Obamas have been in office. Cynthia McFadden, a co-anchor of “Nightline,” said she was inspired by a dinnertime scene in the 1998 film “Stepmom” that featured a family talking about their high and low points for the day. She has been asking her now-13-year-old son to do the same since he could speak, and sharing hers, too.
“I think it’s really powerful for kids to hear their parents say, ‘I had a fight with my boss and had to go to my bathroom to cry,’ ” Ms. McFadden said. “It really gives kids at the table permission to talk about the things they’re struggling with.”
Like so many other families who have followed the Obama example, my husband and I pose the nightly question to our own 5-year-old twins. I like to think of it as a ritual that is more child-friendly than child-centric: As often as not, I learn something about my husband’s day he might not otherwise have mentioned.
I can’t quite imagine my family, circa 1977, doing the same. It would have felt contrived, like some sitcom-y gloss on the reality of our modern lives. Maybe that was an era when anything that reeked of so much wholesome good cheer felt faintly suspect. These days, I am grateful for anything that imposes some order on the chaos of mealtime (and a break from the usual topics of conversation, the evils of chair-wriggling and nose-picking).
That need for structure, any structure, may also have been less pressing to my parents’ generation, who seemed, so often, to have a firmer grip on discipline, using mysterious techniques now lost to posterity.
Franklin Foer said his own family, too, has been known to incorporate the thorn and the rose in their family dinner. But he is lukewarm on this particular Obama policy.
“To me, it always feels forced,” said Mr. Foer, whose children are 4 and 7. “What I learned from my mom and dad was that you can go to the big subjects and engage kids more — my kids are so much more fascinated by World War II than trying to summarize what happened to them that day.”
He also finds a way to bring old family traditions directly to his dinner table, he said. When his children ask him a question he can’t answer, Mr. Foer calls his father on the phone. Then he puts him on speaker, in the middle of the table, expanding the boundaries of family dinner to include the past.
The dinner conversation continues.