A Seat at the Dinner Table?

For a long time there has been a group of Youth Voice advocates in the U.S., Canada and around the world who call for young people to have a proverbial “seat at the table.” This has meant a whole lot, from being on boards of directors and having leadership roles in nonprofits to being able to raise issues in town halls and sitting on the editorial boards for newspapers. Well, as the holiday season bares down for me and my family I’m thinking about seats for children and youth at the dinner table. That may seem kind of blasé or passé to the sophisticates who read this blog; I guess this entry isn’t for you.

Why the Dinner Table
I believe the most significant road Youth Voice advocates can walk is the family way: the majority of any young person’s time, the depth of influence and the sustainability of instinct and behavior from the home setting cannot be matched anywhere else in society. If we can change the way parents treat children and youth, and transition the ways young people behave and believe, we can change the world. And the simple fact of the matter is that adultism informs the most basic of household decisions during holidays, from the ornaments on Christmas trees to the rules for playing the dreidel to the crafts made for Kwanzaa. Right now I want to consider that seat at the table.
Let’s think about what that looks like: Its a holiday meal anytime of year where a family gathers to share food, tell stories and connect as blood in the same brood and from the same genetic pool (generally). Its an important time that religion, culture, and popular media reaffirms as important to our society. Routinely that mealtime includes immediate and extended family, close friends, neighbors, workmates, and others who are in our hearts or minds, who matter to us in some way.
Why is it, then, that we routinely segregate children from the “main” dinner table with a specially-designated “kids table”? Whether the breakfast nook in the kitchen, a card table in the living room or a picnic in the family room, the simple reality behind this routine differentiation can seem more than convenient to young people: instead is can be demeaning and alienating, serving as an indictment of age. There are disguises and tricks families can use to lessen the blow of being sentenced to the kids table; however, none of these eases the perception of young people who are aware of this differentiation. You might cite some of the litany of reasons: “some peace and some time to catch up without constant interruptions,” “adult talk,” manners or tradition.
Four Types of Tables

One part of my family lives in rural Alberta, where they all gather annually for Christmas dinner. My mom says one regular phenomenom there is the “kids choosing to sit wherever they want, and they all sit at one table.” This is self-segregation, which can be seen as an expression of strongly internalized oppression, or conversely a strong statement of self-empowerment.
My friend Danny told me that some of her most fond memories are from family dinners with kids’ tables, where good times were had. She’s not alone, as this writer says, “I loved the sense of connection it gave me with my cousins, some of whom I only saw a few times a year.” Built into that were lessons about appropriate age relations (read: pecking order?) and other forms of familial bonding. There is a sense of relief from having to “act your age” that is tangible at many kids tables, as well.
Maternal-ish figures sitting correctly and men waiting to watch football and kids getting their fingers smacked for smooshing the whipped jello are a reality in many homes, too. These age-inclusive tables may be experienced as oppressive, too, as the young people sitting there may be expected to be “seen and not heard” or to behave like “little adults.”
There are other tables where children and youth are treated with respect. I can remember plenty of times in my own house when my brother and I shoveled the mashed potatoes higher than the tallest guests’ head at holiday dinner, and my parents permitting our age appropriate behavior within reason. And the adults at our table, parents and their friends included, were generally cool. That’s what I’m aiming for in this post: appropriately age-inclusive behaviors in an age-inclusive environment.
And there are clearly anonomolies and other oddities. It seems there is a “cultural lag from the 1950s” childless adults and singles are forced to sit at kids table. There are also a lot of stories about precocious youth who “earn” their ways to adult tables by talking “like a grown-up” or otherwise behaving differently than their peers.
Challenging Adultism at the Table
There is a quote from Malcolm X where, referring to the Civil Rights Movement, he says something to the effect of, “We don’t want just a seat at the counter – we want to own the counter.” I am a fan of this particular sentiment for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the self-realization inherent in the idea: “we” could mean children and youth, and “the counter” could mean their lives. But I’m not calling for young people to take over the holiday dinner table. Instead, I’m asking that we reconsider and reconcieve of what form that place takes in our households.

Ultimately the question of where and how and who and why a households sit together for holidays have to be answered by each family for themselves. Culture, heritage, obligation and pride are powerful forces that each adult needs to recognize and acknowledge, as do young people. However, none of those should be used as a crutch to lean on when it comes to adultism. As other people have suggested, adultism may be a “base” form of oppression that is learned from our infanthood, internalized and perpetuated through the rest of our lives. Creating safe and supportive familial environments is elemental in challenging adultism, and any committed Youth Voice advocate may find these steps elemental to challenging adultism at the table:

Integrate young people one your collective terms. Everyone comes to the table to eat, celebrate, be observant or otherwise comingle. Young people should be taught the value of that from the youngest age, and encouraged to contribute to the tradition however they seat fit, as well as how adults see fit. If they suggest they make place settings like at school, or make a dish, or tell a few jokes, or simply participate in conversation about their favorite topics, then make it known to everyone at the table that is what and how and who your table is.

Identify why you want young people to have a seat at the dinner table. It can be enough to simply say, “Pull up a chair” and make a space for a young person at your table, if you have a small dinner and simple gathering. However, if you are seating for forty and looking at integrating every an adult among every third child then perhaps you should be more deliberate when introducing that integration to the rest of the family. Have a clear goal in mind, and before the meal starts share that reason with your dinner table. That way people cannot deride you for being tricky or dumb.

Sustain the seat. Don’t let integrated tables end at the holidays. Instead, work to make them a fixture at all large gatherings your family or community has every year. This can lead to powerful connections being made beyond holidays and throughout the rest of the lives of young people. In turn, this gets back to the necessity of having a seat at the dinner table: it reinforces the notion that young people are significant enough contributors to society to be acknowledged everyday.

These steps provide a start. Let’s go there, and please share your stories related to young people having a seat at the dinner table!

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