Sunday, January 16, 2011

Weekly Column: Dinner -- Misfits Accepted

Although it’s one aspect of our family life with which I’m the most consistent, sitting down to dinner together is not always pretty. 
Food commercials on TV make family dinners out to be all sweetness and manners, all depth and conversation, but around our own dinner table on any given night, there are directives and warnings and whining.  Much, much whining.  I tell myself those peaceful mealtimes will come with age and maturity; since our daughters are only 5 and 3, our real-life dinners can provide a decidedly more frustrating atmosphere.   
The dinner table in my kitchen is much-abused.  Daily – sometimes multiple times per day – it is the proud wearer of a spilled drink.  It is viewed as a climbing platform by my toddler who wants something from its center.  It sees crumbs and piles of tipped-over food, and waits patiently beneath chunks of unwanted, flying portions. 
But I have to trust that there is more goodness happening at our table than a mere lack of calm and order.  There are opportunities to learn and chances to grow.  There are teachable moments and –perhaps most importantly – there is simple interaction. 
Think about how busy your day is: morning rush for school and work, evening bustle for dinner and activities, nighttime wind-down towards sleep.  When, in all of that, will there be dedicated time for your kids?  Even as a stay-at-home parent, I find myself busy with things that take my focus away from my children.  That’s not terrible; I’m convinced that occasional unstructured, unsupervised play is vital to growing curious, creative kids.  But one-on-one interaction, and interaction as a family unit, is just as important. 
The dinner table creates the perfect opportunity for coming together.  It’s physically arranged so that we can take note of those on its perimeter, but in busy families, or families with young children, it can be an honest challenge to utilize.  Conflicting schedules, meal planning and preparation, or just frustration over dealing with kids and their newly-budding social graces all seem to conspire against sitting down together.  But I would argue that all of those difficult reasons don’t hold as much weight as the benefits of sit-down dinners.
Over the beautiful mess of a normal meal, we exchange bits of our day.  Our children learn to listen to one another and show support for something of which their sibling is proud.  A problem that cropped up during school is easily addressed away from the earlier stress of the moment.  Dad can tell a story about grandma forcing him to try brussels sprouts, and everybody can laugh in sympathy.  Using our table is time and experience well-spent towards creating a safe haven of interaction. 
Even if, at times, ‘safe haven’ is the last phrase you might choose to associate with your wild and crazy dinner-hour, it is perfectly reasonable thing to aspire towards.
A preschooler, flanked by parents and siblings, WILL learn how to stay in her chair until the meal is finished.  A toddler, assisted with keeping her cup away from the table’s edge, WILL learn why it’s an important rule.  Parents, surrounded by complaints of yucky food and arguments over whether or not dessert is imminent, WILL learn how to manage the table’s chaos.  Chaos that will calm down, if given enough time and effort. 
And, after all, we have nothing but time: dinners happen every night around here.  There is plenty of opportunity for practice. 

6 comments:

  1. Yep, that is the best thing about life. It is nothing but practice!!

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  2. I have a 20 month old, and I so identify with what you're saying here! Sometimes I long for a "controlled" dinner, where nothing gets spilled, smeared, or thrown, and I don't have to get up at least a dozen times. But you're right - while dinner at the table may be a challenge every night, it's a practice that is worth the pain we put into it.

    Also - your description of the value of dinner time reminded me so strongly of a poem I loved in college that I thought I'd share: it's called "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo, and can be found http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179782.

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  3. What a great poem, Abby! Thank you so much for sharing it :)

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  4. Family dinnertimes are something I remember most from my childhood. It is a time when everyone could chat to each other and many discussions and debates happened over our dinner table.

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  5. Can I please come live with you? Because even dinnertime chaos sounds so nice at your house!

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  6. Yes, Elizabeth! Come over, and bring sweet Miriam, too! I need a dose of baby love :)

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Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?