Christian Simmers’ recent post, The Prodigal Son at Dinnertime, resonated with me on so many levels. We, too, have experienced more contention, competition, and sibling provocation at the dinner table than almost anywhere else in our daily lives (with the possible exception of who gets to ride ‘shotgun,’ which usually leads to physical blows and wrestling matches in parking lots). Even rolling the prayer cube and reaching for one another’s hands for grace had become a bone over which our two boys could growl and snarl.
Several years ago, the Holy Spirit sent me, via the internet of course, a simple activity to ease dinner table tension by building relationship through storytelling. A mason jar, minimally decorated and containing slips of paper in three colors. Each miraculous little slip holds one question. The colors instruct who at the table will answer the question. And each question is designed not for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, but to lead to a story that will further each of our understandings of one another and deepen our relationships.
Inspired, I bought mason jars and ribbon, brainstormed questions which I typed and printed on their appropriate color coded papers, copied and cut for what felt like hours. I presented the jars as gifts to the families of our small parish, and they all loved them. I did not bring one home. At least, not at first. I was convinced that this wonderful and cute gift would be a godsend in every home but my own. I was convinced that our boys would never choose questions and stories over the opportunity to tease, accuse, and provoke each other over their tacos.
And then my youngest, having watched me lovingly hot glue the ribbon and the labels on everyone else’s Question Jar, asked if we could have one. And that night he got us to open it. And the world changed – well for a half an hour at least – and it was good. I mean, really good…so good…because suddenly we were all talking about things that matter, and listening to each other’s answers, and having a – wait for it – conversation.
Here are a few examples of the questions…
Blue (everyone answers): What is something that is hard for you?
Purple (adults ask kids): If you could switch places with one of your friends for a day, who would it be?
Orange (kids ask adults – these are our boys’ favorites): If you could go back in time and undo something you did as a kid, what would it be?
Unlike anything else we ever tried to improve conversation and relations between our two very different boys, the questions in that little mason jar created laughter and understanding. We would sit down to dinner, someone would begin to gripe or tease or otherwise misbehave, and a small hand would reach for the jar. Miraculously, NO ONE ever refused to engage.
We are our stories, and we create understanding of our world and our place in it by telling and hearing one anothers’ stories. Our boys never tire of hearing how we struggled, triumphed, dreamed, failed, and persevered, especially at their respective ages. Even the stories of our current days, when answering a question like “What made you laugh out loud today?” bring us together in ways we couldn’t have predicted.
We’re providing a ‘starter pack’ of questions for you here.
Instructions are so simple that even I can manage this craft.
- A mason jar – we used the 16oz size
- Printer paper in 3 colors, plus 1 page white paper for the label
- Scissors or office paper cutter
- Ribbon (optional)
- Hot glue gun (optional)
Print the provided questions, using a different color paper for each category. For example, Blue = Everyone answers, Purple = Adults ask kids, Orange = Kids ask adults. Make a label for the front of the jar because as parents, our memories are totally shot.
Cut the printed pages so each question is on its own on a slip of colored paper. Mix all the questions and stuff them in the jar. Seriously, you can roll or fold them up all neat and tidy if you like, but no one will care and they will all end up stuffed in there eventually anyway.
Note: I wish we had thought to cut several blank slips of paper in each color, because sometimes we think of new questions as we’re answering these questions and if I was better at this, I would be prepared to write them down on the spot.
Cut a length of ribbon and hot glue it to the top of the jar. Or the lid. Or don’t – it’s totally up to you and your tolerance for cute DIY crafting.
Place the finished jar on the dinner table, and open it up whenever meal time feels like it’s devolving into an episode of bad reality television. Prepare to be awestruck, every now and then, by the depth, humor, and compassion your children hold and to tell them your stories, some of which will become their new touchstones.