In thinking about all the things I do in the service of “good parenting”, by which I mean creating the conditions conducive to my boys’ growth and maturation, there is one that is so simple, so indirect, as to almost slip right under the radar. And, yet, when I turn my attention to this practice I realize it is it is one of the most powerful parenting “interventions” that I know; it is having people over for dinner. More specifically, it is having people–of all ages– who are in my childrens lives, either centrally or peripherally, over for dinner.
The subset of having people over for dinner that is more well-known is aspiring to the be the go-to house for teens. I heartily support this: having your kids’ friends over for dinner, and over to hang-out, fosters connection between you and their friends, and enables your teen to feel that they can connect with family and friends at the same time (in psychological terms: their attachments aren’t polarized), which is great and important. However, usually this understanding of the power of having people for dinner ends there and in ending things there we leave out wide swaths of people who might support the maturation of our teens (which, sorry to say, their peers can’t do), serve as mentors and teachers, and generally hold them in the nourishing hierarchy of a multi-generational community.
The other people, besides peers, who you might have over for dinner includes all sorts of folks – of all sorts of ages – who are either already a part of your kids’ life or who you think would be a good addition to your kids’ “village of attachment.” A “village of attachment” is the extended communal web of adults who care for our children. Years ago, this would have naturally been made up of family and community members who likely would have lived nearby: grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, teachers, the Rabbi, the Minister etc; they would have made up the literal villages we lived in. These days, we need to create these villages, and having people for dinner is one of the best ways I’ve found to do this.
To illustrate what I’m talking about here are some of the people that have come to our house for dinner over the past year: our elderly neighbors, my sons’ teachers and their families, a couple in their forties whom my son met at a birding conference, my husband’s old boss, the checker at our neighborhood, the parents of several of my boys’ friends, and several older (age 65+) friends we have from our synagogue. Some of these people we knew well before they sat at our table and others we hardly knew at all. After those dinners, I would say that one-hundred percent of those people felt more invested in my boys’ lives and my boys felt connected to more people in their lives who were kind, had interesting stories to tell and, most importantly, who cared about them (not to mention all that they learn at these meals about: making conversation, table manners, being gracious hosts and waiting for slow eaters to finish even when you are quite ready for dessert).
One way we have ritualized the multi-generational version of having people for dinner is through the “grown-up party” we have for my sons’ birthdays. Since their first birthdays, the grown-up party has existed along with the kids’ party and the yearly guest list includes: the 90-something year-old couple we made friends with at the coffee shop when my boys were tiny (one of whom has now passed away), the sixty-something year-old couple we became friends with through our synagogue (one of whom passed away this past year), colleagues of my husband: one a Japanese professor who brings my boys treats from Japan and another an English professor who gifted my son The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes for his twelfth birthday, various neighbors (average age: seventy, who often display political lawn signs that have zero overlap with our political bent and yet are warm, caring and invested in my sons), and our beloved old babysitters, who now come with their own kids who are the same ages my boys were when they baby sat for them. My boys love the grown up party just as much (quite possibly more) than the kids party, and I love seeing all these adults sharing their stories, skills, life-wisdom and good wishes with my boys.
These connections would not be as strong, and in some cases wouldn’t even exist, were it not for the alchemy that happens when people share a home-cooked meal together. The gifts given through this simple act are symbiotic and manifold: multi-generational connections, a warm home-cooked meal, understanding how to navigate old-age and death, hearing people’s life stories, unrushed time enjoying company, a broadened understanding of whom we socialize with (in our culture right now, all socialization, for kids as well as adults, tends to be what my teacher Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls “flatlined”: with same age people) and stoking the warmth of home, ensuring that it is a place where my kids’ want to be.
Having people for dinner creates a village where our culture provides none; studies show, again and again, that one strong and supportive adult can make the world of difference in a teens’ life – imagine the power that a village can have?
Want to learn more about how to support your child’s growth and development? Making Sense of Adolescence starts this Wednesday! If you have a child between the ages of 9-18, this class is a “total game-changer.”*
*Said many students and teachers in last year’s class!