“The dinner table is the center for the teaching and practicing not just of table manners but of conversation, consideration, tolerance, family feeling, and just about all the other accomplishments of society.”Judith Martin
People all over the world have been delighted by the surprise skit that launched the Palace Party last weekend at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations, when Paddington Bear was invited to have tea at Buckingham Palace with her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
The delightfully intimate and comic encounter was made so loveable, not because the friendly, fury visitor was a little unsure of table etiquette, but rather because the Queen, as one might expect, was spot on with hers. She was welcoming, interested and patient; and relied on her wit and appreciation of a good sense of humour. Queen E knew all too well how best to respond when things were a little uncomfortable, and by taking the lead, ever so gently and playfully, was able to settle her guest’s nerves.
This little scene reminded me of the importance of why we do what we do, each day. Living in Australia in 2022 involves mastering the capacity to be with others, around a table, sharing and finding common ground, even if it is only about a Vegemite sandwich.
Table talk has become one of our greatest areas of focus in our Early Learning Centres. The very important experience of sitting at a table, for mealtimes and for collaborative or parallel experiences, is part of our daily program, every day. We ensure that children are given the opportunity to sit together, taking their turn, sharing their ideas, and setting an example for one another, over and over again. We do this because there is compelling evidence that children who know how to be with others around a table have a far greater success in their social connections and future workplace wellbeing.
Many of our families share with us that mealtimes are not what they used to be – a family coming together around a table, at the same time, eating the same meal, sharing their daily reflections, their concerns, their hopes. Rather, meals are offered on the run, or in front of the TV, often a solitary experience, interrupted by phone calls and different daily schedules. Meals, for many families are no longer considered as the time to gather the family together, where manners and table etiquette are expected, where connections are enjoyed. And sadly, we see this is true when their children come to be with us, and have no experience of being together with others, around the table.
Research has also offered us, that those families who find a time to be with each other, every day, for one meal, in the very least, are the families who are able to endure difficulties, to push through stress, to grow empathic and thoughtful adults. Sitting around the family dinner table offers a child so much more than providing a healthy meal. It provides the chance for a healthy life. Think about this – regular family meals are the best chance for children to:
- Find out what is going on in each family member’s life
- Pitch in to prepare and tidy up after the meals
- Learn how to cook different and familiar food
- Understand firsthand the importance of turn-taking, of listening to others, and of self-expression
- Be on the receiving end of respectful exchanges
- Learn about the world and the news of the day or the week
- Ask difficult questions in a safe and loving environment
- Share hopes and dreams, as well as fears and disappointments
- Have fun together as a family
- Develop great communication skills
- Healthier eating habits
- Learn how to eat appropriately, demonstrating acceptable table manners
- Avoid getting into ‘trouble’ as a teenager – seeing the signs early on
- Achieve greater academic results
- Respect group rules
- Feel celebrated and valued
- Contribute positively and meaningfully to their family household
- Enjoy technology-free time
- Create traditions
- Increase your circle to include others
When children learn to be with others around a table at home, they are able to be more confident and self-assured around a table at school. And if you were to walk around the Primary School and many classes in our High School, you will see that the school day is often spent around a table with others – turn-taking, sharing, inquiring, probing, practising the many soft-skills needed for adult life.
Mealtimes are the opportunity to put away technology, establish family protocols and expectations, prioritise needs and requests, create rituals that feed our souls, and prepare meals that nourish our bodies and minds. Try it, you will not be sorry; and if you are enjoying regular family meals, know you are giving your children one of the most important life experiences that will set them up for success.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Head of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW