DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was raised by well-educated, well-read, New York City intellectuals. My mother was a psychologist and my father was a psychoanalyst. In addition to seeing patients, my father wrote books and articles in the inter-disciplinary fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

From the time I was old enough to sit at the dining room table, I remember lively intellectual discussions. Like most families, we’d talk about our day and share personal news. But we always eventually got around to current events or what my father was currently writing about.

Me, Larry, David, and Sarah. Sarah was eight. David was thirteen

My parents talked about the social trends of the day with my father’s unique inter-disciplinary approach and talked about the day’s news through a historical perspective. We’d talk about everything from science and history to the current trends in the arts, movies, and TV. Our conversations took on a life of their own.

A conversation about child rearing practices might morph into a discussion about parenting in other periods of history or in other cultures. A discussion about the growing Feminist movement might end up about the social and psychological effects of changes in gender roles on individuals and on the family.

Me and my parents when I was about eight years old

I was always included in these talks. If I had something to say, no matter my age, I was respectfully listened to and all of my questions were taken seriously and answered.

When I was in high school, I regularly had friends over for dinner. They always commented on the fact that a famous psychoanalyst and a published author like my father, always asked their opinions. They were included, as I was, in all conversations.

This made a huge impression on my friends. At my 40th High School reunion, an old friend told me she still remembered the conversations at my house and the respect she was shown by my parents, who were both genuinely interested in what she had to say.

Me and my dad when I was about eighteen

Dinner time was also when my parents shared stories and asked for advice about their patients of the day. My parents openly talked about their patients’ lives, relationships, and problems, though no names were ever used to conform to doctor-patient confidentiality. Because of this, I learned early what not to do in relationships. This knowledge served me well when I started dating and after I married.

When talking about patients, my parents didn’t shy away from talking about sex. When I was young, much of what they said went over my head. But I joke that I learned about sexual perversions before I knew how ‘normal’ sex was performed. I knew the man was not supposed to do ‘it’ in a shoe, but I wasn’t quite sure what ‘it’ was or how or where ‘it’ was supposed to be done.

My mother continued this openness about sex as a grandmother. I remember her talking about AIDS and anal sex at a Passover dinner, sitting next to my eight-year-old daughter and my thirteen-year-old son. I think it was highly inappropriate, but totally in character for my mother.

Grandmothers rule the Passover table. Really. They do.

My ex, Larry, and I were both lawyers. So our discussions about Larry’s work revolved around the law. We made a point of teaching our kids how to analyze problems and argue their positions clearly and persuasively.

My daughter, Sarah, remembers that if she wanted to do something or wanted not to do something and we objected, she could get us to change our minds if she presented a good enough argument.

Sarah was always asking questions, like most young children and Larry and I made a conscious decision to answer all of her questions. None of her questions were considered stupid or irrelevant. If she asked why we never just said ‘because.’ We always gave her the best answer we could.

Me, Larry and the kids when Sarah was eleven and David was sixteen

We also continued the open discussion policy with my kids when they were growing up. So Sarah too remembers being included in ‘grown-up’ conversations from an early age. Her contributions were heard and commented on. She and her brother grew up to have inquisitive and analytical minds. Sarah also has an immense curiosity about a wide range of topics and approaches them with a similar perspective to mine.

So the tradition of including children in sophisticated conversations has served me and my kids well. I hope if my kids have children, they will continue the family practice with their offspring.

36 thoughts on “DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. I grew up in a university neighborhood but my own parents hadn’t finished HS. What I heard around the dinner table were references to the educated fools they were surrounded by in the neighborhood. I did become very aware of this elitism when @ 8 yrs old my educated best friend’s mother referred to my father as someone who could work with his hands but her professor husband knew his ABCs. I think I became a Marxist about then. I hope the comments here include memories of working class oppression & not references to the “deplorables”.

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    • Your comment says more about you than me. You have no idea who I am. You assume my comment is saying I don’t believe in education. I taught history for 40 years. My uneducated parents encouraged all of their 7 children to get an education but they didn’t appreciate the entitlement that they saw around them. Apparently you think of the uneducated as the deplorables because they made the “choice” to not get an education. Do you include citizens from Indian reservations & African American ghettos as having had a choice about their education? It sounds as though you think my neighbor’s classist comment about my father’s skills vs her husband’s is ok too. Apparently whatever you’ve picked up as far as ethics around your dinner table didn’t amount to much.

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      • Where is the word “deplorables”? Exactly when did I say that? OR imply it? In fact … did anyone in any comment OR in the original story use that word or indicate anything of the sort? All the story is doing is suggesting that intelligent conversation between adults and children is good for the family and very good for the kids. And your objection to that is what exactly?

        I know people of every color including my husband who IS a man of color. He got an education. My parent got one too. They read books. They didn’t go to college, but they encouraged us to do so … and we did it on scholarships, loans, grants, and sometimes, just a bit of good luck.

        I personally doubt my college education did me a lot of professional good. What did it for me is that I can write and I didn’t learn it in school. My husband didn’t finish college, but he was a reporter for more than 40 years.

        But the reality is that IGNORANCE IS A CHOICE. You don’t need any special education to learn things except the ability to read. What you just need is a library and an interest in learning. If you can find the put-down in this discussion, show it to me. Where is it?

        Just a note: I can’t comment on a conversation to which I was not a part. I have no idea of the context or what anyone meant by what they say. You were there, so it’s all in your head. But It’s not up to me to judge a conversation which took place a long time ago in someone else’s home and is a part of someone else’s memories.

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        • You keep dissing people who aren’t educated as if all opportunity is there for the taking & it is their fault if they don’t respond as you think they should. As far as the use of “deplorable” I didn’t say it was used here but I hoped it wasn’t a part of table conversation described here. Considering Hillary C. used the term as if it was a part of her vocabulary it can be assumed it is a normalized attitude among the liberal elites. I knew too many that had table routines resembling the description in this article that were, & still are, capable of seeing the “have nots” as deplorable.

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          • You are assuming a lot of things, most of which are incorrect and annoying. You have no idea what was discussed by anyone of us, anywhere. These comments are supposed to be relevant to what was actually WRITTEN. You should not assume you know the people because you don’t. Usually, I don’t even try to have a conversation with folks like you because it seems your mind is already made up. But you aren’t a spammer, you aren’t being rude, crude, or racist … so I figured … let’s give it a try and see if we can communicate. Even a little bit. That would be an improvement.

            You’ve made an awful lot of assumptions about people you don’t know, never met, apparently don’t understand, and are sure — for no good reason, by the way — have judged you. I don’t know you. How could I judge you or your parents or your friend’s parents from who knows how many decades ago? I had old relatives with old-fashioned attitudes too. They were who they were. We aren’t them. What someone said years ago when I wasn’t there is meaningless to me.

            Many — probably most — of the people I know came from actual or near poverty and at least half of them are one of the minorities you mentioned including my husband. Step back and ponder that.

            We made a life. We didn’t inherit anything or become criminals. In most cases, we helped our poorer parents when we were able. Now old, we are poor too. All that giving tends to reduce savings for retirement. We make choices and live with the results.

            Stupidity is inherited, but NO ONE of ANY race or ANY background has to be ignorant. THAT is a choice. I don’t care what mean streets they grew up on. If you can read, you can learn.

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            • I wish as a kid I had the kind of table conversation described here. I don’t blame my parents for not providing it. You don’t seem to have a clue as to what classism or racism is in terms of its role in the production of inequality, instead you want to believe stupidity is inherited. As a result you don’t have to ever think about inequality arising from the way the elites structure a society in order to preserve their priviledges.

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              • Clarifying: stupidity is an actually low IQ, an inability to learn. Ignorance is an unwillingness to learn or refusal for other reasons. Yes, I know that the way society is structured is horribly unfair. That’s WHY we are poor, even though we worked damned hard for an entire lifetime. But I don’t hate everyone and I believe — because I have seen it — that no matter where you come from, if you want to learn, you can. My mother and father’s family were destitute and neither of them completed high school, but they were not uneducated. They didn’t have degrees, but they learned. Many of the people I know grew up in rough areas amongst even rougher people … and yet they found a way to learn and grow and make a path through life.

                I think you are not giving people enough credit. You are not doomed because you come from the inner city and your skin isn’t white. Nor are you empowered because you grew up in the suburbs and you ARE white. You have choices. You have decisions. You do not have to become a criminal or a crook and you don’t need to inherit dad’s millions to have a life. It’s a lot EASIER with dad’s millions and lord knows, I wish I had millions. For that matter, a few hundred dollars would be really useful right now.

                I have never objected to getting rich. I just didn’t go that way. Lacking wealthy relatives, I guess it will never happen and right now, with the rich getting richer while the poor just get less and less, god help our children and grandchildren.

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                  • She wasn’t referring to ignorant people as deplorables. She was referring to racists and bigots.

                    Personally, I do not care how many people decide ignorance is bliss. That’s THEIR choice. But don’t accuse ME of elitism because they decided they couldn’t be bothered to read a book or dig a little to discover facts. Or refuse to believe science because it’s so much easier to believe rumors on Facebook. And so many of them hate everyone, have no room in their minds for discovering maybe there IS room for discussion.

                    I am who I am. I love books, I love learning, I deeply regret the degree of ignorance which is consuming our world. I don’t think it’s doing our world or its people any favors.

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                    • I guess we’d have to ask her. That’s how I understood it. Personally, I think she lost because she campaigned really badly.

                      It isn’t just the U.S. There’s an international thing” happening that is painfully reminiscent of the 1930s. If my mother was still alive she’d be saying “See? I told you!” I never thought I’d be as cynical as she was, but I’m finding it’s hard not to be.

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        • Bumpkin: Answering back was a no-no at our house. If you did, you had to be ready for a meaty slap. I didn’t mess around too much although I was guilty of “bad attitude” which always drew strong verbal reprimands. That “bad attitude” carried over into basic training in the USMC – Boot Camp – Parris Island. I used to laugh at the DI’s who would scream at us, trying to get us to knuckle down and behave the right way. My laughter didn’t sit well with the DI’s used to making “Boots” tremble and cry.

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    • Great way to bring up kids! I hope parents today ban cell phones for at least a short time each day so kids get the experience of looking at people and focusing on them during conversations. Maybe today driving in cars and talking is like the olden day’s dinner table conversations if people don’t always eat together as much anymore.

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  2. Ellin I think that is the perfect time for families to talk about important things. I fear that this probably isn’t done much anymore because we seldom have those traditional family meals.
    Leslie

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  3. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    Reading Ellin Curley’s post brings back childhood memories of dinner discussions around the dinner table. It was a sacred time when all of us gathered to pass servings of home-made meals and broke the bread of common, daily life. It was a gift that keeps on giving. We were schooled in the best family practice: unconditional regard and high expectation, respectful listening, communal social criticism, and the exercise of responsible citizenship in the world beyond our door.community.

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    • Sounds like your family was wonderful and taught you great values. Dinner table conversations continued past dinner time and were far ranging in topics. But I was also taught how to be a good person and a good citizen through these conversations.

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  4. Your gravator only posts your image and not your blog, but then I saw your comment on one of the Thurs. Door’s blogs, so I tried again, because I wanted to thank you for coming by.
    Oh my, I don’t know what it is to have both parents being psychologists. My parents were survivors of a Japanese prison camps of World War II in their twenties, so they did not have the opportunity to finish their education. My youngest brother is (now retired ) an MD and I am a retired psychologist. What sounds familiar is that my kids friends’ thought I and hubby were cool, and interested in them, because “we talked to them.” Great to meet you this way:):)

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    • Having two psychologists as parents felt very normal. They didn’t ‘analyze’ me all the time but they helped me assess friends and boyfriends. Also, the conversations with them were more interesting and insightful.

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      • Could not say one negative thing about their friends in their teen years. Now they are parents themselves they kind of like it when I give their kids advise (always in their presence:)

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  5. I hope they continue your tradition as well. I grew up with most of the interesting conversations happening over dinners at my Grandparents, and while the kids were at the kitchen table with the adults at the dining room table, we were all well aware that if we opened our mouth to offer an opinion, it had better be well reasoned, regardless of the youth of the speaker.

    From my grandfather I learned the importance of challenging the status quo, and from my father I learned how to negotiate a raise to my weekly allowance.

    As I grew, my mother was involved in the rebuilding of banks after the Silverado banking scandal, where most of the East Coast and Wang fell to ruins.

    I learned a lot around the various tables in my household, and miss those days of interesting conversations.

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    • Dinner table conversation was the highlight of the day. Sharing and talking with my parents was so enjoyable and gratifying! Same with my kids growing up. So glad I could continue the tradition.

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