When my sons headed off to college one of the biggest changes in our lives was dinner. For twenty years I had turned myself inside out to get the five of us seated around the kitchen table as many evenings as possible. I didn’t do this because I believed it would earn them better grades or keep them out of trouble, but because spending some time together every day was what made us, us.
Where else could my family share the banal minutiae of our days with each other? Where else could my kids kick each other under the table and grab food off each others plates above it? Where else could we bond day in and day out as single relationship, a family, not just a collection of relationships residing in the same home?
Soon after they left for college, the old wooden table that still stands in our kitchen was replaced by the digital dinner table. In a text thread, that later became a GroupMe, the five of us gathered and talked about everything and nothing, just as we had all the years they lived at home. We remark on the world, make each other laugh, recount anecdotes of our lives and remind each other of the Netflix password, just as we did when they came home from middle school and sat close enough to fight with each other and sneak food to the dog. It is a conversation that would mean nothing to anyone else but means everything to us.
For two decades we sat around a physical dinner table, but we will gather around the digital one for many more. With this connection we made a seamless transition from the day-to-day conversation of those who live amongst each other, to those who live digitally amongst each other.
I have seen the research on family dinners. I fully appreciate that families who dine together raise grades and lower drug and alcohol use. But the benefit that has got my attention is that among families who dine together regularly, kids feel closer to their parents. I am hoping the same is true for families who gather together in a text thread.
There doesn’t appear to be any research yet on the family GroupMe so I am going to speculate about what this very 21st century table, the one the exists in the palm of our hands and not in my kitchen will bring to our lives.
The first thing lost when kids go to college is the day-to-dayness of our connection. Some would argue that this is a good thing, allowing our kids to establish themselves as independent adults. Yes, well, up to a point. I am all for creating adults. Yet I am all too aware that the tight emotional connection and easy intimacy of family is nourished, in part, by our daily life together.
The digital dinner table is a compromise. My kids live independent lives. But with a quick note, or an even quicker photo they give their parents and their brothers a glimpse into that life. With a stream of photos that paint a thousand words and a few hastily tapped out sentences we are all up-to-date. It is one thing to recount an event for your family hours, days or weeks after it happens. It is another to share it when the enthusiasm, wonder, humor or disappointment are still fresh.
This gathering is more than text messages on steroids. It is a way to grow and enjoy a relationship that exists between parents and siblings, something that cannot be done with calls and texts between any two people at a time. A family as a living entity, the whole is something entirely different than the sum of the parts. But it can only be nurtured when its members are together in real life or digitally.
The thread of this conversation, one of dozens I imagine my kids engage in every day with friends, professors, colleagues, coaches, teammates and each other, serves a very different role in their lives. It reminds them of who they are and where they came from. It grounds them again and again in the values and the love in which they were raised. It is easy for teens and young adults to feel adrift. In the same way that our toddlers would run from the playground over to the bench where we sat, simply to touch us for a moment, before sprinting back to play, our grown kids can make the same very brief contact with us, a reminder that they have a permanent cheering section in life before turning to whatever challenges they are facing. When they were little I offered a Cheerio or raisin now I offer a word or two or an emoji.
It is at this table that I get to continue to experience one of the sweetest, bring-me-to-tears joys of parenthood; watching my kids interact with each other. From the moment they beheld each other, through biting, kicking, playing, helping, teasing, supporting, encouraging and now texting, bearing witness to their siblinghood has been one of life’s great gifts.
No generation has ever sat at this table before, so I ponder the rules. Do we add partners or spouses to our GroupMe one day? They would and will sit at our kitchen table, do we ask them to dine at this one? How important of an issue can you bring up at a table in which we express emotions with funny little yellow faces?
I have an unholy reverence for the 21st century and my overwhelming gratitude to have lived to see all that it has to offer. There is nothing I will ever be more grateful for than the fact that it allowed me to exchange our old battered wooden dinner table for a digital one.
This table does not require that we prepare a meal or set out cutlery. It does not require us all to be seated at the same time and certainly not at the same place. It does however require that we all respond to each other, within some reasonable period of time. It means that your family stays in your life and requires your response and interaction even if it is only for a couple of minutes every day or two. It means the conversation that began at the dinner table which connected you in childhood, will connect you for the rest of your life. It means that you owe your family some amount of your attention, however small, and in return your family and all the love and support they entail is never farther than your phone.