In your dim memories of Thanksgivings past, you may remember it: the card table in the kitchen or the family room, possibly set with plastic cups, and a paper tablecloth, where you sat with your cousins and threw Brussels sprouts at one another. The dreaded kids’ table.

If you want to build Thanksgiving memories and strengthen family bonds, the kids’ table is a bad idea. A multi-generational table makes Thanksgiving memorable, and meaningful. It’s simpler than you might think, and worth the effort.

Thanksgiving (and every meal) is an opportunity to not just eat, but to connect with others in community. Something sacred happens around the table. Teaching your kids how to converse and behave at the table, allowing them to practice hospitality, happens best when they are elbow to elbow with adults. Thanksgiving memories are made at a multi-generational table.

In this contentious post-election season, kids at the table just might cause the grownups to act, well, more grown up. Kids can help people to remember to use their inside voices and their filters.

And sitting at the fancy big table can inspire kids to use their best manners, rather than goofing off to try to get attention, as they often do when stuck at a kids’ table.

My kids grew up gathering around our table–at holidays and every day. When they’d invite their friends to dinner, on an ordinary weeknight, we all sat down together, and friends shared in our routine: saying grace, sharing the highlight of our day, helping to clear the table.

This year, my kids will not make it home for Thanksgiving. But we’ll have my nephews, and my friend Sarah’s two boys. Our table will include people ages 11 through 86. 

Our holiday table has always been multi-generational, and it allowed my kids to get to know cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles—some that they only saw at holidays. It helped reinforce that our family values and practices hospitality, not just at holidays, but all the time.

The transformative table

A handful of years ago, we gathered at our table in late summer, with friends and a couple of people we’d met that day and invited to dinner (that’s kind of how we roll at our house). Someone asked my daughter, who was 18 at the time and getting read to go off to college, what she’d miss when she left.

She looked around the table, lifted her hands and circled them to indicate all before her: family, friends, strangers, table, and said, “this.” This table, where all are welcome. This table, where our story lives and gets told and shaped, where we hear the stories of people from around the world and also next door. Where the stories of friends, strangers, and family get intertwined and strengthened and changed.

My dining room is cozy (read: small), and the table is meant to seat eight at most. We drag our kitchen table into the living room, and annex it to the dining room table to make room for a dozen.two-tables

If you’re hosting Thanksgiving for, say, 20 or so, more than will fit at two tables end to end, you may have to have several tables. Put a few adults and a few kids at each table, and give them some things to talk about.

Instead of arguing politics, or just arguing, you can invite people to share what they are thankful for—it’s a question anyone who can talk can engage with, at their own level.

Around our table, we’ve used these questions in years past, and will use them again. (We let people pick one of the questions to answer.)

  • What’s something that surprised you this year?
  • What is one word or phrase that describes 2016 for you?
  • What is one unexpected gift you received in your life this year?
  • What challenge did you face in 2016? How did it affect you?
  • What are you hoping for in 2017?

One year, my niece brought her boyfriend. It was the first time we’d met him. He told a story in answer to one of the questions, about his father. Later, he told my niece how meaningful the meal had been. She told me he had tears in his eyes as he remembered it. Why? I asked. Because we listened to his story, even though we’d never met him, and that made him feel loved, she replied.

This year, ditch the kids’ table. Invite people to tell their story. Love them, feed them, listen to them. You’ll be thankful you did.