Thursday, June 28, 2012

Just before the family meal

This post was written by Mary Rothschild, Director of Healthy Media Choices, a non-profit that works with parents and teachers of children birth to age eight toward unique strategies for intentional use of media. She also facilitates Witness for Childhood, an effort to bring the voices of progressive humanist and faith communities into the conversation about media and technology in the lives of young children.

Family meal times are getting a lot of press right now, and high time. Recent articles in The Christian Science Monitor by Mary Beth McCauley and the New York Times by Susan Dominus as well as the Huffington Post's on-going series "Family Dinner Table Talk" extoll the virtues of this time-honored (but oft neglected) family ritual, give various resources, and explore the methods famous people from the Obamas to Gwyneth Paltrow employ.

As an advocate for and facilitator of tailor-made strategies for each household toward intentional use of media and family time, I'm delighted to see there is not a "one size fits all" approach in discussions about how to make the most of the opportunity family meals afford.

The cerebral brawls of the Emmanuel family cited, by McCauley, might have produced some powerful actors on the world stage, but quiet reflection on the day's ups and downs, the things accomplished and left unfinished, may be more your cup of tea. They are not mutually exclusive, either. Each group, together for that moment (even if some live part-time elsewhere) can find ways to connect and enjoy their evolving questions and relationships.

A phrase in McCauley's piece caught my attention. One of the symptoms she cites of an "obligatory" family dinner, everyone present physically but not really, she says is: "the thing that looks like grace but really is heads bowed, hands fervently texting." She goes on to say that this is the kind of routine enlightened parents are trying to avoid in various ways. As Laurie David says in the Susan Dominus article:

"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."

The underlying assumption that a head bowed will not be in "grace," is relevant here and, while I haven't done exhaustive research on the current articles on this subject, I don't see evidence that this part of the family dinner ritual is currently explored. There are probably good reasons for that. In my view, there is nothing to be gained from a rote recitation of a prayer. And, anything relating to religion is tough to talk about. But that pause before the meal deserves consideration as one of the little "sticks in the wheel" of the momentum of daily life in a "digital world."

After giving my own presentation at the Media Ecology Association's convention earlier this month, I stopped in on a panel about the influence of Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) French philosopher and Christian anarchist. Ithaca College Professor Raymond Gozzi, Jr. spoke on "Ellul on Prayer vs. la Technique."* Gozzi outlined the ways in which Ellul explored prayer as an antidote to the overwhelming effects of a technological society, especially in his book Prayer and Modern Man. I think Ellul was onto something. What can that bowed head be doing rather than texting that can enrich family time? As always, I don't have a template in mind, but rather invite a look at what this could mean.

It was one of those serendipitous moments when, as I was preparing this post, the catalog from the Zen Mountain Monastery came in the mail (we have gotten it since we bought that little chime) and I opened to the Meal Gatha, a reminder that there are many forms of "grace before meals" that households with ties to faith communities find to be a meaningful touchstone.

Others think of prayer literally as thanking God, but take turns, varying the actual form. Some traditions give thanks to the earth and the source of food. One image that comes to mind is the scene in the film The Gods Must Be Crazy where the hunter thanks the animal that has just been killed for giving its life to sustain humans.

For some of us, it is the pause to change gears that matters. In my own ecumenical home, we have a small rod chime. The youngest person present strikes it and we listen silently, holding hands, until its sound can no longer be heard, an acknowledgement that we are together for this time, sharing that moment and that sustenance. A tiny ritual, but one that is, for us, a "keystone habit" as described in Charles Duhigg's important book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, those sometimes miniscule habits around which other habits orient and a culture can evolve. It, too, could be formulaic and we try to be sensitive to that.

What are your thoughts and experiences? Let's share; this is the place for it.


P. S.: If your work situation means you're tag-teaming with other adults in the household so sitting down together is a rare experience, please weigh in here too, and look for my next post re: what if we can't sit down for meals together?

*I won't go into "la technique" here, except to say it is a term Ellul used to indicate all the means humans employ toward the goal of efficiency, not particular tools or methods. This concept is explored in his book The Technological Society.


  1. we are a "tag team" family all dinner is just the children and myself while lunch is my husband and children. we make breakfast the big family meal, and while it means earlier bedtimes and morning alarms, it is simply a lovely way to start our day.

    in our family and in our home, we don't "take the bread" without also taking the Bread of Life. we end every meal with a reading from the bible out loud. it does make for longer meals, but nothing is so important as chewing on the bread of life as we take the bread that fills us, both body and soul.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Mommy H. This is the essential think I've learned in my work with hundreds of parents: taking the time and attention to find what fits the individual family that counts, not some abstract ideal.

  2. Thanks for this. I decided to start small, b/c we're a tag-team family too, with one of us always running out the door to work in the evening. We started a Friday night Shabbat dinner - very informal. Basically it includes wine, grape juice, a candle, a donation to charity, saying things we are grateful for, and playing music together afterward (no screens, no phones, no email during this time). It's amazing how quickly our 4 y/o grabbed onto this new "tradition". Kids really love rituals.

    (That image of heads bowed in texting is really incredible -- a perfect visual metaphor for our information-crazy age)