We eat family meals together almost every evening unless there’s a school or church event to attend. We set the table and sit down together. Some people tell me it’s a lost art, but I don’t know family life any other way.
A family meal is how we connect in a hurried world. No electronics are allowed. Sometimes the food is slow cooked for hours, sometimes it’s thrown together in minutes and on Friday nights we often pick up pizza from the local pizza shop. The food preparation is important, but it’s not as vital as the conversations among my husband, our three kids and me.
Our six-year-old daughter, Anika, forces the conversation deeper than just a few highlights from our day. Every night she asks four questions, and we have to answer every question without repeating a previous answer (except on the last question).
Anika thinks she invented these questions because she has been spearheading the exercise since she could talk. About a decade ago, though, a Grace City, N.D. rancher, mom and confidant shared with me the questions she asks her children each day. I tucked them away in my memory bank and expanded on them with our kids.
Our nightly ritual starts with Anika picking one person at the table and then we work around (usually clockwise). If you’re a guest at our table, you’re expected to have an answer. And so we begin:
What is the best part of your day? Depending on who gets to answer first, my husband, Nathan, or I often say “right now.” There’s seldom nothing better than sharing a meal and conversation with your family. This question gives everyone something to celebrate, even on the mundane days.
What was the worst part of your day? This question merits a specific answer from our kids, especially our teenage son. Even though he’s a strong communicator, he answers “nothing” when you ask him what happened at school. We’ve worked to find other ways to communicate and learn from our teenager. This question has proved helpful.
By asking this question, we learn about something that might have remained unspoken, could have snowballed into a situation much worse or would be reflected later in test scores or grades or even from a teacher or coach.
On a great day, there are times someone says “I haven’t had a worst part.” Those are moments to celebrate also.
What is one thing you can improve on? No matter what age or stage you are in life, we all can improve. Listening to how my husband and kids want to improve makes me want to improve myself. Sometimes the improvement relates back to the worst part of the day, working on study skills, preparation, patience or kindness.
What did you have for lunch today? Nathan, Hunter and I often eat lunch at home together. Elizabeth, our second-grader, and Anika eat at school. Nevertheless, Anika loves this question. She talks about lunch, who said what, who got in trouble, what she didn’t like about the meal or if she was a member of the “clean plate club.”
This is the only school year all three of our children are in school together, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Next year, we’ll continue our nightly questions around our dining room or outdoor table but Hunter will be at college. I think we might to have Skype or Facetime a couple times a week to include Hunter in the question-and-answer session.Families celebrate their best, their worst and their improvements together. It’s difficult in a hurried life with a full schedule to carve out the time to listen and learn from one another. But it’s necessary. Even if you’re an empty nester, make supper, set the table and sit down for a meal together and ask your spouse a series of questions. If you’re single or widowed, ask a friend, child or sibling over for supper and then ask them questions.
Connecting through purposeful and intentional conversation is key to developing relationships. Asking sincere questions and listening to the answers, away from distractions is pivotal to healthy relationships. I’m thankful for the six-year-old in our family who keeps us on task every time we sit down to share a meal together.
Do you eat family meals together? Do you have routine questions you ask to spur discussion?
(This was originally published as my weekly Agweek column.)