Julia Baird doesn’t just let her kids sit at the adult table when people come over for dinner, she has a rule. The rule is simple, she writes in her wonderful book Phosphorescence: A Memoir of Finding Joy When Your World Goes Dark: Every child must ask the visitors two questions. The idea is to skip the pleasantries and learn from the unique perspectives of the people who have come to be in their home.
When they were younger, her kids would ask simple questions. What’s your favorite color? What did you do today? But as they got older, the questions have gotten funnier, stranger. If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? Sometimes they get really weird. One time, her son asked, “If you were a piece of ham in the fridge and you had to find your way out of the house and get past the cat to go to another country, how would you do it? And you can’t walk and you don’t have arms; you can only wiggle.” Another time, “If you were a hamburger fighting a burrito, what strategy would you use to defeat it?”
It’s funny, we spend a lot of time concerned about our kids’ manners. No elbows on the table. Chew with your mouth closed. We want them to be polite, to not embarrass us. But you know what’s really embarrassing? Having a kid who is boring. Having a kid who isn’t curious (which as Sandra Day O’Connor reminds us), is another way to say not smart.
If we want to equip our kids to survive and thrive in the world, it’s not enough just to make sure they get good grades and can behave in polite company. We need to encourage them to learn from people, to gain new perspectives. They need to know how to have a conversation, how to debate and argue.
There is no better, more fun, lower stakes training ground for this than the dinner table.