Friday, January 06, 2012

The family dinner myth

My husband and I have decided not to invite the kids to dinner anymore.

Okay, people. Calm down. I didn't say we wouldn't feed them. We will; just not when the adults are eating. Eating with adults is now considered a privilege in this house.

Lately, dinner has become loud and contentious with a lot of bizarre misbehavior. They do things that haven't specifically been barred, but you'd think a 5 year old wouldn't stick his fingers in the whipped cream bowl or the 3 year old wouldn't put her fork in her milk. We find ourselves squelching every variation of a non-word noise that my son makes. We don't expect much from the youngest. We know that he's just a miniature billy goat at this point. Somehow, this is not what I had in mind when I made dinner together a priority around here.

I remember dinnertime being a fun, family time when I was a kid. My dad would do impressions and make us all laugh so hard that milk came out of our noses or someone threw up (usually me). Someone would pray, usually my dad and it was usually a low mumble leaving us wondering when it was okay to eat. My dad would say, "Time to slop the hogs" and my mother would feign offense at his reference either to us as hogs or her food as slop (most likely the latter). My baby brother would scarf down food while my other brother ate all of one item before moving on to another which earned him the nickname Mr. Single Threaded. And at least once a week, my dad would kick over the milk bottle that he'd placed on the floor next to his chair. The only argument I remember at the table was the classic,  self-incriminating "He had his eyes open when we were praying."

I don't remember what family dinnertime was like in the early years, when we were all the ages my kids are now. Recreating any of my childhood memories with my own children before they are at least the age I was in that particular memory gets me into trouble. And that may be why trying to recreate the family dinner experience of my childhood has become a frustrating exercise in barnyard management.

Here's what it looked like in my barn, I mean, home around 5:30:

Daddy gets home, hustles the kids into the bathroom to wash hands and gets them to the table while I plate up food that will just get thrown about the table and barely eaten. 

Danny whoops and hoots at the table, but sometimes tries to engage his father in conversation about his or his dad's day. Fiona is on a continuous whine loop. If I give her a fork, she wants a spoon. She makes one frustrated attempt after another to eat spaghetti with a spoon and then begs me to feed her spaghetti. With the spoon. When I refuse, she tries to get in on Danny's and Jim's conversation. And then the chorus of "I'm going to beat you" begins. Fiona makes this claim but doesn't eat a thing. Danny gets his undies in a bind over it and wolfs down most of his food. Owen is the only who eats unprompted, until he decides to throw his plate and cup. There are warning signs and usually one of the adults removes the plate in time.

By this time, I usually have heartburn-induced chest pains and am taking slow, deep breaths while holding my chest and wondering if I'm about to die. I am also bitterly debating with myself whether making dinner every night is even worth the effort. See, I'm a person who like to cook and likes to feed people. And this is what I have to work with. It's depressing.

The most common phrases heard around our table?

I'm going to beat you. (from the kids, not the adults.)

Stop him. He's getting ready to throw.


SIT DOWN.  (Seriously, people, when do children learn to sit down like normal human beings? My 8 and 10 year old nieces were here this past weekend and couldn't sit still in their chairs. I apparently have at least 10 more years of this.)

When the adults try to talk to each other, one or all of them start making random noises that would probably drown out the fire alarm. 

So much for dinner conversation and manners.

Monday night was the first night that I didn't call the kids to dinner. I just plated up some food for them and when the hungriest one of the bunch wandered into the kitchen, I fed him. It was Owen, of course, and he came in whining, "Hungry." The others followed later. I didn't even ask them if they'd washed their hands. There was the usual shenanigans, but I did a minimum of policing. The best part was that it wasn't disturbing my dinner, which I had later with my husband in the dining room. Danny wandered in while we were eating and wanted to talk to us. We let him.

After a few nights of Jim and I eating in the dining room while the kids ate in the kitchen, we all somehow wound up eating together at the kitchen table. Closer quarters, less shenanigans and more food actually eaten.

It's a shift in focus. Instead of mealtime being about feeding and family time, it's just about feeding them. I spend all day with them and by dinner time, I don't need more family time. I need to talk to my husband and I don't want to wait until the kids are asleep.  Sounds harsh, I know, but it's true. I need to eat while sitting down instead of carrying my food around with me. I need to eat without a child on my lap.

If we didn't make this change, by the time they're old enough to hold conversations and behave like human beings, we wouldn't be on speaking terms. Sometimes I just need to take a break from my ideals and hit the reset button.

1 comment:

Monica said...

thank you! again you have managed to make good sense while making me laugh so hard i almost spit up my coffee. i soooo wish i would have had a blog like yours to read a few years ago when i could have immediately put all your advice to work. hope y'all are having a happy new year with pleasant dinner time dining. ;o)