October 22, 2020

Dinner With The Kids: Thoughts on Successful Parenting

news_041105_01_large.jpgUPDATE: My wife, Denise, has added a post on how talking played a major role in turning out great kid.

The two most important determining factors in raising well-adjusted children are if they have religious training and if the family eats dinner together. -From the Touchstone Magazine website

The greatest compliment Denise and I receive is how well our children have turned out. Noel and Clay are amazing young adults and we have more grateful joy in them than we do in anything we’ve done or accomplished.

Often, we are asked to write down “how” we raised such great kids. I’m sure we both answer that request the same way: “God did it!” Whatever we (and others) did right, God gave the grace and providence that made our kids what they are. We continue to see the work of God in their lives, even as adults who are living their own lives and making their own choices. From DNA to sparing us particular kinds of problems to the kinds of people that surround us in our community to the on-going work of the Holy Spirit, the “God” part of parenting is far, far beyond any choices we made as parents.

I do believe, however, there are some reflections on parenting that would be worthwhile, and I will share some of them in this post and in future posts. I am encouraging Denise to also write some reflections at her blog.

The quote at the top of this post caught my attention because on a long drive yesterday, Denise and I mentioned this very thing as a key to the success of our family. The family dinner was a constant in our home throughout the parenting years.

Let me give some background. Both Denise and I grew up in families where the family dinner was an expected and normal part of life. No matter how much mental illness and conflict tore at the peace of our family, mom, dad and I would sit down, pray and eat together.

When we came to our current place of ministry, we began to do what many of our co-workers did: eat in the school cafeteria for all meals. Soon, however, we decided that we needed to establish a family meal at home where work and student concerns wouldn’t interrupt our meal. We also believed that our children deserved what we had as children: a regular family mealtime.

So we began a nightly ritual of calibrating our schedules and work responsibilities so that we could bring food home from the cafeteria (or cook, or both) and have a set, regular meal with our children. This wasn’t easy. At times it was a tremendous hassle, but we did this throughout our lives here and Denise and I continue to do so now (though we go to the cafeteria a bit more often when we have evening work to do.)

I don’t want to be “pollyanna” about what was involved in this kind of commitment. Often the food was not appealing and we had to compensate. Clay passed on a lot of meals and ate PB and J instead of what was served. Sometimes the kids had rehearsals to attend. We often adjusted meal times to accommodate schedules. We weren’t always in a good mood and we didn’t always want to be together.

Not every meal was a happy time, just as not every day is a happy day. During times Denise and I were having marriage issues, some of these meals were very difficult. I have confessed some of my personal sins to my kids at mealtimes, and that was tearful. But my overwhelming memory of these times is one of happiness and enjoyment of one another. I have no doubt this made a large contribution to the health of our home.

The largest portion of these family meals was the best part of the day. I think we would all agree that not only was this important to the parenting process, but it defined our family and our relationships to one another in many ways. In my mind, I remember this as a special, much blessed time.

How did the family meal make for successful parenting?

We learned to talk to one another. Conversation is a hallmark of the Spencer family. We talk and we enjoy talking as a family. Sometimes the kids would fight over who was interrupting whom in a conversation. Considering where a lot of people are with their kids- cold silence- this was a good problem to have.

We asked all those questions that parents ask. Our kids didn’t like it any more than your kids do, but they learned to expect questions about the day, grades, experiences, and school. We call it “getting a full report.”

We passed along the stories, rumors, surprises and events of the day. It was a way to “process” what happens in life, and to share it with others. It was also a time to gain perspective, and to learn from the lessons of the day.

We celebrated, and we encouraged each other. The kids often struggled. Mom and Dad struggled, too. But we were a team. The family meal was an expression that we were there “for” one another.

We discussed events that contained lessons about morals and values. This might seem gossipy, but we discussed what other families were doing that we weren’t going to do. (Like spending money on a luxury, for example.) We discussed problems we were having with students or that other families were having with their kids. This gave us “case studies” to discuss what we believed about morals, ethics, life and faith. These “case studies” were effective in communicating and growing in maturity and faith.

The kids asked questions; sometimes life questions, faith questions and even Bible questions. Clay had a Bible teacher that he didn’t agree with very often, so we spent a lot of time talking about what that teacher meant when she said something wasn’t “of God.” Like Harry Potter. Or Magic Cards. Or most of the movies we watched.

We laughed. We laughed a lot. Laughter and humor are gifts and our family relishes them. Our work in our ministry setting is hard, so we have to laugh. We learned to laugh at our own mistakes after we’d been angry or pathetic about the same mistake. We laughed at the stories and follies of our life at a boarding school. Believe me, there were lots of things to laugh about. God has blessed us all with senses of humor, and we exercise them frequently and in ways we couldn’t at school, church or with other families. This gave our family a bond, because we always knew the family would share our skewered perspective on events of the day, and help us find the humor in them.

This thirty minutes every evening was a time to pray, talk, share, question, complain, listen, question and interact. It was the “family conversation,” and we miss it very, very much. The empty table is the worst part of the empty nest.

As the kids got older, this family dinner became more important to the kids, and today we all realize that eating, talking and laughing together are God’s wonderful gifts to us. We’ve now included Ryan, our son-in-law, at our table. He’s a quiet fellow, but he’s become part of the chaos and the fellowship that is the Spencer family meal time.

Because we started when our children were very, very young, we didn’t have to force our kids to to this against their will or over another routine. Because our community is tiny, we had very few issues of scheduling we couldn’t work out to all be together. We were blessed, and blessed in the process.

Eating at a table with family is a preview of heavenly fellowship with Christ and one another. I hope that image is rooted, for our kids and for us, in the real experience of the family dinner table.


  1. I like how this relates the spiritual family as well; the value of communion. Not just eating a little wafer and grape juice, but sharing meals together.

  2. Good post! We agree completely, and have been having meal times together with our children “forever” (at least, that will be their memories as adults). One thing my wife, Leslie, started when they were quite small is a tradition where we go around the table and each of us have to say what was “best and worst” about our day. Part of the rule is that none of us can get out of it by saying “everything” or “nothing” as the answer for either our best or worst moments. It was work when we first started this tradition (none of the kids were even in Kindergarten yet, I don’t believe), even for the adults. Now we all typically have something to say – the exercise in keeping in touch with each other has become a tradition, and we all seem to usually have something to say now. Some days the answers are quite trivial, but other days great conversations arise from someone’s experience that day. It engenders better conversation than the classic “What did you do in school today?” (and the classic answer, “Nuthin'”). In fact, now, if Les or I don’t bring it up, one of the kids will almost always ask, “What about our bests and worsts?” I hope we keep this tradition going forever, even after they’ve moved out, but when they come back to visit, or even when we just talk on the phone.

  3. I couldn’t agree more that making a commitment to bring the family together for the evening meal contributes significantly to creating a happy family. At the very least it means the family is making a connection to each other once a day. Opinions, ideas, stories, accomplishments, challenges and so much more are shared.

    I’ve raised 4 children. Our youngest is 17. The latter years have been more challenging to get everyone together for a meal because of work and sport’s schedules but they’ve all grown up with the notion that the family getting together to share the evening meal was the norm.

    Our lives are so hectic with everyone going in different directions. It’s very easy to lose the connection through all the busyness. Especially through the teens years, connection is imperative.

  4. Growing up, family meals were sporadic at best for us. My brother and I would get our food and go watch tv while my parents ate together at the table. Now, being part of the Spencer family’s dinner table whenever Noel and I visit is a great joy (even if I am quiet…). I definitely hope that Noel and I will be able to reduplicate the family spirit and intimacy that you and Denise were able to realize at your table. Thanks for the post!

  5. Praying that will be true. Practice with the cats.

  6. My family always ate meals together. In fact, up until I got a job when I was 16 (we homeschooled), we generally ate all 3 meals together. Even after I started work, we always ate dinner together. My dad would invent new comedy routines involving various dinner items (including a screaming funny dialogue between himself as Ebenezer Scrooge and a baked potato playing the role of Marley’s ghost), or talk about theological things. My mom usually kept everyone up to date about political issues, and local news, while me and my sister participated in a bit of everything, There was usually some kind of discussion about the books each of us were reading, and what we intended to read next. I know that those meals shaped me deeply and permanently; I’m glad we were able to go that!

  7. Question about the gossipy part. Any pointers on how to address differences in family and personal values without engendering a superiority complex? We find ourselves with some huge value gaps even with Christian friends, and it’s hard to know how to communicate that well within the family.

  8. That’s hard. I can’t say I’ve been any where close to sinless and I may have passed on some of my sins to my kids. One of them is, like me, very analytical and there are sins that follow that gift.

    I always try to say that those with whom we might differ over, for example, secular music, were living out their commitment to Christ in a way that made sense to them. They came a different path, but they are still following Christ. I wanted my kids to respect sincerity, but not legalism. As I said, that’s a tough path. But then “Judge not” isn’t all the truth about discernment or wisdom either.

  9. Interestingly, in Europe the countries with the strongest “family values”, and the lowest divorce figures, are those who have a strong tradition of families eating together – Italy and Greece (maybe also some others). Also quite interesting is that Italy is also the country in the EU that most often identify itself as Christian.