In his poignant and moving eulogy for those senselessly murdered in Tucson, Arizona, President Obama asked us to "listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy," to show "more civility in our public discourse."
As families, as parents, how do we best answer his challenge? Let's begin where prior generations first learned and practiced the rules of civility on a daily basis - the family dinner table. We need to return to this ritual, where our children can learn patience and the arts of sharing and empathic listening. Family meals are where we regularly show our respect, admiration, support and affection for one another, where a child's self-esteem is nurtured, where manners are modeled and imitated. Vitriol, mean-spirited language and putdowns are never on a healthy family dinner menu. It's Civics 101. Every meal is a chance to laugh, to learn, to love. And especially during these tough times for so many families, the routine of the dinner table provides shelter from the storm.
Carleton Kendrick, who has been advising his clients for over thirty years about the importance of family dinners, recalls how his mother, father and extended family members reinforced their family's values every time they ate together. My parents demonstrated how we could discuss anything, kids included, and even disagree with one another, while always showing an abiding respect and empathy for each others' opinions and feelings. I received a daily dinner helping of who we were and what we stood for as a family - kindness, generosity, integrity and compassion. I got much more than food. I got appreciated, loved and learned how caring women and men spoke with and about one another, without rancor.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O' Neill maintained that "all politics is local." We believe that all civility is local and then extends itself to public discourse and behavior. Civility is first taught and modeled in the loving embrace of the family. How much more "local" can you get than your family's kitchen table?
When doing research for the book, The Family Dinner, Laurie interviewed many prominent members of our society, including religious leaders, doctors and authors. They all recounted one common experience - their social conscience was largely shaped by the daily discussion shared at their dinner table.
Let's load up our children's dinner plates with healthy home-cooked food and generous portions of kindness, respect, empathy and conversation. Let's answer our president's call and feed our children what they need to become our next generation of compassionate, civil citizens. Soul food, family style.