The power of the diner tradition

I started a tradition with my kids when they were young that I’m really thankful for now that they’re older. Late at night, we will head to a diner and have a meal, but it’s not primarily the food that we’re there for.

Once we’re in the diner, we transition to peers, and they have permission to say whatever they’d like to say. Like Vegas, whatever they say in the diner in a way stays in the diner; they will never experience negative consequences from me for what they reveal in the diner.

I started this when they were young, and at the time I wondered whether the idea was a wise one. None of my parental peers seemed to be doing anything of the sort. I am pleased to say, the “diner runs” as we refer to them, turned out to be the best tradition I’ve ever created.

When a kid is vomiting, we simply hold their hair back and help them get it all out. But when a kid is emotionally vomiting, culturally we’re more likely to say “You’re going to swallow those words and you’re going to swallow them right now!”

It is important for kids to express emotions in an appropriate way, but how emotions are expressed appropriately must be both modeled and taught—and more importantly, adults must make context for some emotions to be expressed.

If you appropriately punish your child, the punishment may produce strong emotions in the child. Even though the punishment is appropriate, the resulting emotions in the kid aren’t wrong, they are natural and normal.

If one of the responses is anger, if we don’t provide context for the kid to express the anger, the kid might swallow it. It’s like chewing gum in school, the kid either spits it out or swallows it; the bottom of the school desk chairs in grade school testify to the lack of gum ridding opportunities.

And if a kid swallows anger, it toxifies and becomes either depression or addiction.

As parents, we have an opportunity to make appropriate context for our kids to express complicated emotions, and when we do, we demonstrate healthy emotional habits that will result in their own healthy lives, but also they will tend to produce healthy contexts for their own families and their own contexts.

The hosts and staff of the diner have become friends over time. (You know who you are, Jeff Varner and the staff at Baker’s Diner.) I think that they have some idea what’s happening, maybe in the bits of conversation they overhear as they take our order or refill my coffee for the umpteenth time.

I remove all prohibition in the diner for the kids when they’re early teens. They can cuss like a thumb-hammered carpenter if they want. (Turns out that when a kid can cuss, they rarely do.)

My friends who are introduced to our tradition initially are terrified about what their kids may say to them. (What if your kid could honestly tell you what they think of you, and of your parenting style?)

The early meetings were about us, about me and about our family and about homework and frustration. The beauty of traditions, though, is that they don’t end. My kids are grown, and we still take off for the diner. May it always be so!

The diner sessions have permeated our lives, and my kids know that dad is in their corner, that I have their back and that there is nothing they can’t tell me, even of what they need to tell me is about my own failing or humanness.

Our diner sessions have produced kids who are not only emotionally healthy, but who are relationally fearless. I’m proud of my kids, and I love them with all of my heart. Best of all, though, I know my kids and I know their hearts, because we’ve spent a lifetime of exploring each other’s hearts in the diner. No fear.

Vern Hyndman is a husband, father to four, engineer, pastor and founder of the nonprofit Heartforge.

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