I have a secret weapon for making family dinner happier. Every time I try it, it results in laughter, connection, and fun.
Oftentimes when we sit down together to eat diner, all that can be heard is:
“Ugh be quiet, stop making that noise, you’re bothering me.”
“Please don’t eat until we say the prayer.”
“I need a snack.”
“We’re not having a snack right now we’re eating dinner.”
“Can I have something else?”
“I need a fork!”
“It’s hot so make sure you blow on it.”
“I don’t like peas.”
“Don’t get up until you finish your food.”
According to The Secrets of Happy Families, a book by Bruce Feiler, much of family mealtime is composed of this kind of chatter. Feiler recommends that parents try to engage children in about 10 minutes of real talking.
Sometimes a meal passes and I realize all I did was give orders. I don’t have to tell you that no one enjoys the drill sergeant mom barking, “finish your peas” every night.
This is where the secret weapon comes in. Many evenings when my husband is working late, it’s just me and the kids eating dinner. I finish my food only to find that my kids still have full plates. As I encourage them to keep eating, I tell them a story. Not just any story, but a true story about our family.
This is where the magic comes in. Instead of bothering each other and getting distracted by toys, they quietly eat while they listen to the story. When the story is over, they ask questions, relate it to their own experiences, and tell their own stories. Usually my 3-year-old’s stories border on historical fiction, while my son asks me to repeat his favorite stories (usually the one about “the other man” who wanted to date mommy).
I’m always amazed by how easily this simple trick works. You don’t have to know a lot about your family history, either. Any old story from your childhood will do. The kids will love knowing about your days growing up.
If you try this and it works, you’ll start getting more ideas for stories. Funny stories, sentimental stories, and even stories that can help your children overcome obstacles. Stories about practicing sports, getting a job, going to college, overcoming bullying, and so on.
In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler interviewed Marshall Duke of the famed Intergenerational Self study about how knowing family history makes children more resilient. Children who know a lot of family history were usually told it by a mother or grandmother. Duke calls this kind of story the “bubbemeise,” Yiddish for “grandmother’s fable.” It’s a story that grandmothers tell children when they are in the midst of a challenge. “You’re having trouble with math, kid? Let me tell you, your father had trouble with Let me tell you, your father had trouble with math” (The Secrets of Happy Families, page 42.)
I had the chance to tell my six-year-old son a bubbemeise (or should I call it a mameweise) a couple weeks ago. My son was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes paralysis of the lower extremities. To our delight, he learned to walk at age 2. This is nothing short of a miracle to us. He walks with a unique gait and he doesn’t run as fast as his friends. After a playdate with a friend he asked, “mom, do you think I’ll ever be able to run fast?”
My heart broke a little bit. Then I recognized my chance to tell him a special story. A story I’d been saving for the right moment.
“Honey, I am so glad that you can run. Did you know that we weren’t sure if you would even be able to walk? Before you were born, the doctors said you might have to be in a wheelchair. When you learned how to walk, we were so happy.”
“I bet you want to run faster. But do you know what? I’m not a very fast runner either. I wanted to be faster too, like you do. This was after you were born. I decided to do a hard race to show you that I could do hard things and so can you. I signed up for a really hard race called a triathlon. I had never done one before, and I wasn’t very fast.
“So, I started practicing every day. I made a practice schedule. I didn’t miss a day. I didn’t know how to
swim more than one length of the pool without stopping for a break, but I went to the pool and practiced over and over until I got better. I didn’t know if I could run 3 miles after riding my bike 19 miles, but I practiced with shorter distances until I got better.
“I thought I would fail! I didn’t think I could do the triathlon. But I didn’t give up. I went back to the ocean the next day and practiced again.
“When the weekend for the race came, I was ready. I did my best! And I wasn’t very fast. But I kept going until I finished. I did it!
“Did you win?” My son interjected.
“I didn’t win. Lots of other people were faster than me. They were nice to me as they passed and said encouraging things. When I was done with the race, I felt incredible. I was so happy that I did something that hard. And it was fun!
“So you see, you don’t have to be the fastest, and you don’t have to win. As long as you don’t give up and keep trying, you can do hard things, feel good about yourself, and have fun too.
I told my son about the medal I got from the race and promised to give it to him someday to remember the story. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t win and that I wasn’t fast! But he gave me a big hug and an even bigger smile.
Will you have stories to fit every challenge that your child faces? No, probably not. But between you, your spouse, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and more ancestors, you could probably find a bubbemeise for most situations your child may be in. The collective experience of family members make raising strong children possible.
If you’re a FamilySearch user and your relatives have contributed to the collaborative tree, you may be lucky enough to find incredible stories in the Memories section. A FamilySearch app called All The Stories makes it even easier to read all the stories of your relatives in one place.
If you fill a book with these stories and your children read it, will they automatically face each challenge with strength? Not quite. The bonding moment and the inspirational memory make children stronger.
Feiler wrote, “Dinner does not cause the benefits…what generates the sense of attachment and emotional toughness is the process of hearing all those old stories and seeing yourself in the larger flow of your family. In other words, what we think of as family dinner is not really about the dinner. It’s about the family.”
Really, any ritualized family time works for passing on family stories. Holidays, vacations, reunions, and family home evenings all work. For me, I find that the best time for passing on family stories is dinner. We have to eat, and we pretty much always do it together. It’s up to me, as the one who know my stories, to share them with my kids. And when I do, it not only keeps my stories alive, but it gives life and strength to my children. That’s why I share family history with them.
Why do you share family history with your children? How and when do you do it?
See the other posts in the Family History for Children blog link up here: