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Teaching Humility Over Family Dinner

Posted on: March 31st, 2016 by Lynn


Note: The Family Dinner Project recently embarked on a collaboration with our friends at the 92Y to create tools and resources for a new kind of supper club — Benjamin Franklin Circles, modeled after Ben’s own “self-improvement club.” This is our Executive Director Lynn Barendsen’s reflection on beginning the process of incorporating the lessons of Benjamin Franklin Circles into her own family dinner routine.

To me, one of the best ways to have meaningful, offline interactions is over good food. Sharing food while sharing conversation deepens the connections we all make, and besides, isn’t everyone happier with a full belly? Whether it’s dinner with your family, a dinner party with friends, or a community potluck – gathering together over food is a great setting for thoughtful, extended conversation. In our family, the Benjamin Franklin Circles have inspired new topics for family discussion.

In our house, dinner is sometimes messy, sometimes hectic, and occasionally reflective. My husband and I certainly try to cover the major, important topics, but we’re not perfect. We’ve found that it can be easier to tackle deeper topics when we bring it down to earth and “make it real”.

One way to start a Benjamin Franklin Circle conversation is by interpreting a particular virtue for modern life. Humility is one of the values I hold most dear so I decided to dig into that virtue with my family. I work hard to instill humility in my children and do my best to model it. I talk about how I value and try to act with humility in my work life. So many interesting questions to ask of this virtue: what are the differences between humility and modesty; what is the relationship between humility and success? There are so many VERY loud voices demanding our attention in the media – do quieter tones receive any attention at all? Now that our boys are older (13 & 15) we can sometimes manage to talk philosophically about these ideas. We have managed, for example, to discuss the fact that humility involves encouraging others, seeking out the company of those who may be more creative or talented than ourselves (as opposed to being threatened by or jealous of them).


We’ve also explained that humility is self-evident when we understand ourselves as part of something bigger, within a larger arc of history, looking years back and thinking years forward.

All that said, there’s also something truly awesome about 13 year old wisdom. “So, what’s humility?” Generic definition ensues, “The act of being humble.” “Okay, so why is it important?” “Because you don’t want people to think you’re a dolt.” And there, my friends, you have it.

Sometimes teaching by example is the way to go. Family keeps us humble. No matter how successful we become, our families will remember us as we once were, help to remind us that may have come from more “humble” beginnings. Nothing like a little brother to make you rethink your outfit, or a big sister to question your argument. I know when I’m presenting in front of a 350 person crowd I STILL hear my mother’s voice in my ear, reminding me to stand up straight, or I see my outfit through her eyes. On some level, I will never be “too big for my britches” because I have my family to anchor me and keep me modest.

Talking about virtues as a matter of course, not as a matter of highbrow conversation, normalizes them, and normalizes the process of reflection. Building them into a family – or community – routine is actually much easier than it sounds. I’m looking forward to tackling the next few together (and will do my best not to stack the deck towards those things I’d like to address first; e.g. order, cleanliness).

A version of this post originally appeared on the Benjamin Franklin Circles website.