“Last night, I had a dream,” three-year-old Drew announces during dinner.
“Oh?” I say.
“Yes. There was an alien in my dream and you know what he said, Mom?”
“Drink all your milk at dinner!”
Everyone bursts out laughing. Drew stands up on the bench that runs alongside our dining room table and starts performing what I assume is some intergalactic dance.
“Drew,” says my husband. “Stop making sound effects and eat your food.”
Drew sits back down, smiles big and takes another bite.
Twenty-month-old Paula turns to me and says politely, “nakin peeze.”
I give her a paper napkin. She takes it, lifts her plate in her little hand and proceeds to wipe its contents neatly on the floor.
“Paulie, no!” I say.
She looks at me perplexed. “Aww done.”
I sigh into my lemonade. I am reminded again. Family dinner at our house is far from a dignified event.
Now, I am aware that much has been said about the importance of the family meal. It is often praised as togetherness at its best; sustenance of the body coupled with sustenance of a family’s life. But I think that the family meal should never be taken too seriously or it may never be taken at all.
After all, it’s much easier to just eat your dinner standing over the kitchen sink or in some hidden location your kids haven’t discovered. Eat without children and you never have to say: “No blowing bubbles in your drink.”
“Stop picking your nose with your carrot stick.”
“You don’t need half a cup of A1 sauce on your hamburger!”
When dining alone, you can just nibble away like a regular grown-up and never feel the need to hurriedly snarf your cooling noodles because any second now somebody’s going to ask you to butter them another slice of bread. You can stay free and relaxed and your children can remain barbarians delightfully elsewhere. But, I think that such separateness tends to breed ever more contented separateness, and that it may be better to tough out a regular family meal at least some evenings a week for the purpose of growth and betterment and some unexpected hilarity.
I try, I really do try to set a good scene. I lay out dinner on the sideboard. I light candles. I make sure the table is cleared of Legos and Play-Doh before we set out knives, forks, spoons and eight brimming glasses of milk. I sometimes dim the lights and turn the radio to jazz. Jazz will make my children cool, will make them sophisticated, I tell myself. Then, I stand in the middle of the house with a ladle in my hand and shout out, “dinner!” And as sixteen feet and what sounds like just as many voices come running from everywhere, there is sudden mayhem. They’re drowning out Louis Armstrong! I work on staying calm, reminding myself that this isn’t a performance, we’re just trying to eat dinner here. Anyway, they’re good kids. Loud, but good. I look proudly on as they line up, fill their plates and move along to the table.
Paula’s food is set in front of her. She immediately snitches a mouthful.
“We have to pray first,” I tell her.
“Otay,” she says, taking another bite.
Finally, everyone is ready. As a family, we sit together, we pray grace together, we eat together and if I’ve cooked something everybody approves of, there is enough quiet that we can enjoy Louis for awhile. On other nights, I make a general announcement, “Yes, you do have to eat at least some of such and such. So, don’t even ask about getting out of it.”
I should probably note here that in our home, several customary table rules have been, unceremoniously, dropped. No elbows on the table, for example, seems a battle not worth fighting and is therefore, out. Keep your napkin in your lap. Out! Cut only one piece of food at a time. Out! Don’t chew with your mouth open… if you are over seven years old… try.
Other rules, however, remain firmly in place. Don’t stick your fork in the arm of the person beside you. Stays. Don’t hide your peas in your milk. Stays. Don’t get up and walk on the table. An absolute. Oh, and make a trip to the bathroom during meal time and you will forfeit the night’s dessert. That’s reasonable. I have been argued with on this one. I have never lost. And guess what? Nobody EVER needs to go during dinner now. Except sometimes me, when I am pregnant. But that doesn’t count and also, I get dessert no matter what!
The family meal at our house may not be a picture of pure, Rockwellian perfection, but it is wonderful nonetheless. Out of all the slurps and spills and clinking dishes and unavoidable mess, come some of life’s most enduring lessons. How to nurture. How to serve. How to appreciate the efforts of others. How to make conversation. How to enjoy archaic jokes told by someone so eager and cute and freckly that laughter around the table just can’t be helped.
It really is worth it. Believe me.
by Alannah Smithee, a pseudonym for a homeschooling mother