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The Kennedy Family Dinner Table

Biographers often look to the family dinner table for formative habits and behaviors. The Kennedy family dinner table has been a prime example, generally described more as work than an opportunity for family bonding.

In Evelyn Lincoln’s 1965 book on JFK she gives a striking glimpse of the kind of intellectual competitiveness encouraged around the Kennedy family dinner table:{{1}}

His inquiring mind and search for all the facts reflected, it seemed, the training he received around the family table when he was growing up. His father would assign a subject–Algeria, for example–to one child and instruct him to find all he could on the subject. Then he would tell the other children to do the same so they could question the first one when he made his report and see how much he really knew. Both father and mother tried to develop alert minds in their children by giving them mental exercise, just as they encouraged physical exercise. And the same competitive spirit prevailed at the table discussions that was apparent in the touch football games on the lawn.{{2}}

Lincoln’s book is unashamedly fawning–it’s dedicated “with love” to JFK’s children, after all–but Thomas Reeves provides a sharper edge:

There were family rules, and the children quickly learned what it took to be acceptable in their parents’ sight. ‘We were computerized at an early age,’ Eunice [Kennedy] said later. The youngsters were required, for example, to be at the dinner table on time. Rose [Kennedy] later quoted a favorite maxim: ‘Promptness is a compliment to the intelligent, a rebuke to the stupid.’

“If the children arrived even seconds late, they did so at their peril.”

If the children arrived even seconds late, they did so at their peril. If one of their guests was tardy, Joe would often fly into a rage and administer a tongue-lashing. One such victim, a pal of Jack’s who never returned, later recalled, ‘The other kids, including Jack, sat around the table, heads bowed, apparently frightened to death.’ The children stood when their mother entered. They were required to listen attentively when their father lectured on any topic (sometimes with a map) and to respond clearly and intelligently when he asked detailed questions about their activities, current events, and matters of general knowledge. There was never to be silliness, irreverence, or even relaxation at a formal family meal.{{3}}

[[1]]Evelyn Lincoln was JFK’s personal secretary for much of his Senate career and all of his presidency.[[1]]
[[2]]Evelyn Lincoln, My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy, (New York: David McKay Company, 1965), p.97.[[2]]
[[3]]Thomas Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, (New York: Free Press, 1991), pp.34-35.[[3]]