CHICAGO -- The other day I sat down to dinner with my family and jumped back up to grab my iPad.
"Oh, I forgot -- I have a news story to share," I said.
Without missing a beat, my older son said, with not a little weariness, "It's not about immigration, is it?"
I shot back, "No, smarty-pants, it's about the death of a giant spider, so there."
I was annoyed by the boy's good memory -- yes, it was true we had touched on the subject of immigration earlier in the week. But a wide variety of topics make it to the dinner table as part of our informal ongoing series of mealtime chats designed to expand consciousness, mold character and suss out information rarely given up with the standard inquiry of "How was your day?"
That evening I had a really great story about the untimely passing of "Tiny," the 40-foot giant inflatable spider that for two decades graced the sides of one of the roller coasters at our local amusement park. But often we chew on science news (self-driving cars or genetically modified food), crime (murders, child abuse and deadly fires), politics (mostly the Obama/Romney race) and a catch-all category I like to think of as "What would you do?"
All kinds of things fall under that umbrella, such as the story about the guy who jumped out of a train at the Bronx Zoo "to be one" with the tigers and got himself mauled. As parents, we try to keep an open mind to our kids' young, idealistic ideas about life and it usually yields interesting discussions: What was the man thinking by risking death and getting arrested in order to spend 10 minutes of up-close, one-on-one time with a 400-pound tiger? It's not hard to get from there to a consensus about what it means to keep our passions in check.
There was a great study published in the Journal of Marriage & Family last summer suggesting that the importance and benefits of family dinners aren't as strong or as lasting as previous studies would have had us believe. The researchers quantified what should be plainly obvious: For dinnertime to matter, there has to be meaningful engagement between the parents and children.
This came to mind recently as I read a news story describing the top dangerous activities that kids see on YouTube and then do at home, unbeknownst to their parents. I noted thankfully that each of the items on the list had previously been discussed over dinner: The choking game, car surfing, huffing, the cinnamon challenge (where you swallow a spoonful of the spice without water), shoving your mouth full of marshmallows (Chubby Bunny), and stabbing between your fingers as fast as you can with a knife.
There's no trick to having these, and other important, conversations regularly or to gaining the benefits of sharing meals as a family. And you don't have to cook dinner and come prepared with a news agenda -- just start talking and listen closely. You'll have to work hard at keeping your cool when your kids detail their favorite TV shows or the ridiculous things their friends routinely do, but take a deep breath and keep the dialogue going.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group