by Jen Rouse
The Short Years
Let’s have a little confession time here: you know how family dinners are supposed to be the holy grail of parenting? How you all sit around and share about your day and laugh together around the dinner table, and doing so is supposed to raise your kids’ IQ and make them less likely to do drugs and just make them into all-around good people?
Well, here comes the brutal honesty: sometimes talking to my kids while we eat is boring, and I don’t want to do it.
Sometimes I ask them something about their day, and they say, “I don’t know.” or “I can’t remember.” and then we all just sit there silently until I find some other topic to try to force conversation.
Sometimes they chatter incessantly at me and repeat song lyrics over and over and make weird faces that I am supposed to find funny and sometimes they complain about the food and I get mad.
Sometimes–like tonight–I am tired, and conversation with anyone sounds like work. Tonight Eric wasn’t home, and though I made a real dinner and the kids set the table, I was on the brink of telling them that maybe tonight would be a good night to turn on a movie and watch it while we ate. And maybe I would pull out my book, or the newspaper that I didn’t even get a chance to look at this morning, or maybe I’d wander off to the computer and sit and stare at Facebook and other people’s blogs for awhile. Because to be honest, holing up inside my own head sounded way nicer trying to get inside the heads of a a 7-year-old, 5-year-old, and 3-year-old.
But I didn’t. I made myself sit down and talk to my kids. And here’s the main reason why:
When you sit down around table with someone and then turn your attention to something else–the TV, a book, your e-mail, whatever–even if it’s by mutual consent, you are telling your dinner companions that they are not important. That they are not interesting enough to talk to. That this inanimate object is more interesting than they are.
And even when that’s true–which, when you’re talking about conversation with a 3-year-old, is most likely the case–it’s still just plain rude. I constantly insist that my kids respect me. I can respect them, too. And so I try, at least once a day, to stop whatever other thing I’d rather be doing, and converse with them while we eat.
There are other reasons, too. Such as: if you never engage your kids in conversation, they’ll never learn to be more interesting companions. Manners and politeness and friendliness are learned skills, and in this world where we all interact virtually all the time, the opportunity to learn them is more critical than ever. If you get a degree from Harvard but you can’t sit down and engage with someone over a meal for half an hour, you’re not going to go very far in the world.
And also: making mealtime about more than just shoveling calories into the body while your mind does something else…lingering around the table until your dining companions are done…giving thanks for the food before you eat it…these little rituals remind us that food is something to be savored, shared, and enjoyed. Not just mindlessly consumed.
|Spaghetti. The meal that I make when I don’t really know what else to make, because I know that if nothing else, the kids will eat it without complaint. Photo from Wikimedia commons.|
And so, because of all these high and lofty reasons, I sat around and ate spaghetti and green beans with my daughters and talked to them, even though I didn’t really feel like it.
Evie told jokes that didn’t make any sense, and the punch line of every one of them was “Poop.” Except for one time, when it was “Mr. Poop.” And the girls played with their broccoli, and they spilled their milk, and when I asked Lucy what her swimming teacher’s name was she said “I don’t know,” and when I asked her what she learned in swimming she said “I don’t know” and when I asked her what she did this afternoon while I was working she said “Fun stuff” but then none of them could remember, apparently, what “fun stuff” entailed.
But there was also a discussion about gravity, and how it’s different on different planets (and I sucked at explaining it, because I really don’t understand that much about it myself), and we talked about the audio-book we’d been listening to in the car, and we talked about future career plans, and (because we are girls) we talked a lot about a dress that Beth wants to buy.
It was a slow, unremarkable, normal, messy, Tuesday night dinner with my kids. And I’m glad I made myself do it instead of watching TV.