There is no head at our dining table. We have a rectangular table made of wood, with white steel legs, surrounded by cheap plastic chairs of various colours. There are no assigned positions, only preferred chair colours that must be respected lest a certain three year-old get upset and turn into The Incredible Hulk (he gets the green chair, please). There is only one unspoken seating assignment, and it is for me, Dad. Dad can actually sit anywhere; but he may never sit at the head of the table.
Now, before proceeding, I feel it is important to note that I don't mean to prescribe; I only mean to narrate. Our family rituals are ours alone, and nobody needs to agree. But the reason we have them is because the most potent messages are the most subversive ones, the quiet ones that creep up on you in your sleep, or maybe even at mealtimes.
In our case, the biggest, loudest, most extroverted member of our little five-person cadre is currently me; and I don’t need to reinforce my position every time we gather to eat. The more pressing message for our family in 2018 is that we are equal humans with different roles, in this together. They need to know that mothers are just as powerful as fathers, and that fathers must work tirelessly to retain the respect so naturally given them by children. And then maybe they will expect the same of all their leaders—be it a sports coach, teacher, or the president of their country.
When my kids are older and look back at our family life, they may or may not ask questions about why we had certain mundane rituals. But if they do, they may learn that physical size and strength don’t earn unquestioning respect. They may learn that authority is never assumed, it is always earned. They may learn that respecting tradition sometimes means questioning the shelf life of long held practices—so that they can be built upon, and so that family, maybe even society, can benefit from the iteration.
Our table may change one day. We’re open-minded like that. We might get a round one, though I vote we keep the old one (tradition!). My children may one day eclipse me in physical size and breadth of knowledge. Then maybe it will be my turn to fairly sit at the head of the table, should our social roulette play out that way. It will all be OK... provided that Hulk gets to sit on the green chair.