Article Jun 12, 2017

Life lessons around the dinner table: Guarding family time

I believe children mature more and are far better prepared for life when their primary places of learning life lessons are in their family and local church. By comparison, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs have a lesser role to play. Yet, our culture wants us to believe the opposite.

I played tennis seriously from first grade until high school graduation; lots and lots and lots of tennis. I played on both my school teams and in independent travel leagues. I remember in middle school when the head coach of a well-known tennis league in Houston mapped out the plan for me to become a college athlete. I also worked part-time jobs through high school, first as a busboy at a diner and then later as a gopher at a vet clinic.

Through it all, several family values remained in place: our family of five ate dinner together in the evening, and we worshiped with our church family on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.

Extracurricular activities and part-time jobs either accommodated this routine or we quit them altogether. Looking back now at 40 years old with four children of my own, I am so thankful to the Lord my parents stuck to that family value no matter how different it made us. Extracurricular activities and part-time jobs are not irrelevant, but, in my view they remain tertiary learning environments compared to the home and local church.

My family’s example growing up

I learned so much about the Lord, life, people, culture and the world by sitting around the dinner table. I learned biblical headship by watching dad interact with mom and his three children. I learned submission by watching my mom. I learned fatherhood and motherhood. I learned how different males and females are and how they should properly interact. I learned about hard work as day after day I listened to my parents recap their day. I learned selflessness as I had to sit and listen to my sisters share about their day in dramatic detail. I was discipled as my parents debriefed us on our days, helping us look at our challenges, failures and victories from a biblical worldview. I learned the priority of marriage and family from all the times I told coaches or employees I couldn’t be present with them because of family dinner.

Apart from my local church, the dinner table was the most effective school I ever attended.

I learned how to walk with the Lord by listening to my parents’ stories and realizing they were far more committed to the Lord than their own personal desires and dreams. I learned how to forgive, serve and love. I was ingrained with commitment, convictions and values. Apart from my local church, the dinner table was the most effective school I ever attended. In adulthood today, many of my childhood friends have great memories of extracurricular activities and humorous stories about part-time jobs, but have little knowledge of how to build a family, the very foundation of life, according to Genesis 1:27-28.

My family’s practice today

This is why I follow a similar routine with my family. I’m simply replicating what I saw in my childhood. Dinner is not for the purpose of consuming food; dinner facilitates important, quality family time. Four to five nights a week, our family eats dinner together around the table without music, TV or iPhones. Family dinner time is closely guarded; we say “no” to many good things to prioritize this value. Every person shares about their day. We also discuss current events from a biblical worldview. Nicole and I hash out serious issues and decisions about our family that are age appropriate for the kids, so that they can watch and learn how to do marriage one day. Anyone can challenge anyone around the table, but the rule is nobody is allowed to yell in anger nor be disrespectful. The kids need to learn to think critically, express themselves well and defend their personal opinions.

As the family’s leader, I guide the flow, prompting people to share if necessary, mediating arguments, asking leading questions, etc. We laugh, we tease, we celebrate, we mourn, we debate, we challenge, we argue, we counsel. I learned from my father that lots of humor is essential—if the kids haven’t seen me with green beans sticking out my nose and ears or mashed potatoes on my face, I’m doing it wrong. Also, I use lots of self-deprecating humor because my kids need to see that I don’t take myself too seriously.

On the rare occasion dinner is ruined, the solution is never to get upset, but instead to yell, “Last one in the car gets no say in in the restaurant we are going to” and run to the car. Sometimes, someone calmly gets up from the table, walks to the garage door and says, “I’m on my way to get ice cream. Whoever wants to go better get in the car.” After dinner, Nicole leaves the table and goes to the couch. The kids and I wash the dishes and clean the kitchen because the kids need to see that husbands serve their wives in the home, and they need to be ingrained with appreciation for how hard mom works every day to serve our family.

I’d caution you against outsourcing the primary shaping of your child to activities and part-time jobs. As a parent, I urge you to radically prioritize family time and local church time over these things. Nobody can teach your child about life like you can. God uniquely knit you together to be the most effective life-teacher your child can have in this world. You are the chisel with which God wants to shape your child. They need lots and lots of time with you and their family, which is why I beliEve the Lord says what he does in Deuteronomy 6:6-9. You won’t regret the hours you spend investing in preparing them for the rest of their lives.

A form of this article originally appeared here.  Learn from Nathan and Nicole Lino and other speakers at the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.