June 12, 2011
The real place to help children is not the living-room sofa, with its omnipresent television, nor the bedroom with a conscientious parent reading Harry (rather than Beatrix) Potter aloud. It is the dining room. Civilization begins at the dinner table. Here is where we learn the rudiments of good behavior. Observation tells us which knives and forks to use and not to throw food on the floor. We learn as well the ingredients that go into a decent lunch or dinner, about nutrition and taste, what goes with what, and what to avoid. We learn how to drink wine to accompany food rather than to get blasted. We come to understand the art of conversation, when to speak, when to listen, when to assent, and when to argue.
At the table, we consume and we give back. To do that, we have to arrive having read and thought about books to discuss. We need to understand what is happening in the world enough to speak up. When someone mentions the latest production of a Pinter play, we learn that as civilized creatures we should find out about it ourselves for the next conversation. At the dinner table, we receive and share knowledge, opinion, banter, gossip, jokes, and affection. We test our ideas against those of others. We challenge our elders. They challenge us. We learn to come armed with something in our heads before we fill our stomachs.
The sadness for children in the English-speaking world is that most of them no longer have lunch or dinner with their families. Statistics vary wildly, depending on who has done the research. But most indications are that American and British families are eating dinner together less and less. Many of those who do have dinner together do so before a television, barely noticing that young Timmy is drooling into his just-unfrozen pizza or little Sally is eating her macaroni with her fingers.
Read to your kids as often as you can. It’s better than downing a beer in front of the television. Try to shield them from elephantine organs pumping away at shaved pudenda. But go the extra mile. Sit down at the table and talk to them as equals. Let them help with the cooking, as no youngster loses from knowing how to prepare good food, where the food comes from, and what it costs. Make them part of civilization and not isolated, disaffected sociopaths seeking companionship in artificial friendships within their computers’ illusory worlds. Let them grow into people able to hold their own in conversation anywhere, willing to debate their supposed betters and unafraid to tell employers, politicians, and experts when they are wrong. In short, let them be human.
As the blessed Oscar Wilde said, “The man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.”