Friday, July 6, 2012

Sitting down to dinner, together

From the time I was a small child to the time I moved out of my parent's home, I don't think my family ever, ever ate dinner as individuals.  My uber-organized mom had a complicated cooking chart saying who was making dinner which night this week.  Dinner time was announced well before-hand; we all came to the table together and ate the same food; we stayed at the table until we were excused.  I did not realize there could be any other way of eating dinner, to be honest.   

So my own focus on a family dinner wasn't initially some kind of a moral imperative, but rather a complete ignorance of alternatives.  I just thought that's the way dinner happened for everyone.  Just like, "cereal is for breakfast, sandwiches are for lunch, and heavy stuff is for dinner".  It's the way life is, is all.

Until . . .

Well, until I got married to another person.  Until I started having/adopting kids.  And then I learned about foraging from the fridge, about eating in front of a television, about different food for different folks, about kids eating one thing and one time and parents eating another thing at another time.  This was horrifying to me, not so much from an ethical standpoint as much as from a cultural/traditional standpoint.  Christmas presents:  we open them taking turns, from youngest to oldest.  Dinner:  we decide who makes dinner, and then we all eat it together.  That's just the way people are supposed to do things.

Convincing the family to join me in a family dinner ritual, that's been a different series of challenges.

In the single-mom-of-a-single-child era, I learned how hard it is to go one-on-one with a kid.  Even though my daughter was at the piddly-child-phase compared to my eminently-respectable adult status, dinner disputes were too easy to turn into a contest of equals.  I remember my 4-year-old daughter determinedly eating her food with her fingers, despite repeated rebukes.  In this case, the solution was to assert eminent domain and take away her entire plate.  She got it back once she agreed to use her fork and knife.  But in any case, it wasn't always obvious there was merit in having a "family" dinner when the family was just two people, one of whom turned her nose up at any food other than hot dogs, chicken nuggets, or mac-n-cheese.

When I got married to a man with kids of his own, I learned that family dinners don't always bring back warm, fuzzy feelings.  My husband's main recollection of dinner time was hearing his mom nag mercilessly in the general direction of his dad, who hung his head over his plate and ate as quickly as he could to escape the harrang.  I learned much later that because of this, his own children had pretty much had all their dinners in front of a TV, not at a table.  You can probably imagine how hard it was for him when I started correcting his daughters for having elbows on the table and chewing with open mouths -- my guy was miserable, but he wouldn't tell me why for a long time.  It took me months to figure this out.  (Eventually we got to the point where dinners were a fond and pleasant ritual, I promise.)

That "correcting the kids" motif you might be noticing?  That's been a recurring theme in our family -- trying to teach kids to eat in a socially acceptable manner, while still having a socially pleasant meal.  The later you start kids on -- say -- using utensils, the harder it is for them to learn to be patient, polite, etc, and so the harder it is to have a dinner that's fun for everyone.   And then, what do you talk about?  You ask the kids, "What did you do in school today?" and they say, "Nothing."   Well, that's fun . . . not.
Here's my favorite conversation starter with kids.  You ask, "Who did something today that started with the letter . . . M?"  Then kids wrack their brains and start chiming in, "I did Math".  "I Made friends."  "I ate Meatballs".   And from there, you can ask more:  What kind of math?  What's your friend's name?  Are meatballs better than pizza?
The boys we've adopted, especially at advanced ages, fall deep into the Remedial Camp as far as table manners go.  And, not surprisingly, C-son in particular does not like to have his manners corrected.  He's been gently trying to boycott family dinners, saying, "I'm not hungry", as if that mattered.  It's not supposed to be about the food, but how is he to know that?  And of course, he -- of all my kids -- is the most in need of all that is Good and Right about a family dinner.   

So this past week I tried something unusual.  Especially for me.  You might remember that C-son is now deep in "debt" to me because he broke his sister's guitar and is paying part of the cost of replacing it.  He is beginning to feel that debt in visceral ways, and it worries him (to which I say, good again).  And so, I'm bribing him.  I've offered him $1/day for eating meals with the family, trying to be polite.  Yes, I'm paying my son to eat dinner with us.  This is not a strategy I recommend to others; and even in our home, it is a limited-time offer, good only for July and August -- hopefully, long enough to sink the hooks and establish a pattern.

But, for the first time ever, C-son came to both breakfast and dinner on time.  And, without being asked, he used his knife instead of his fingers.  And he chewed with his mouth closed.  And we had a good conversation about tennis and about trips to Philadelphia.  And I think, so far, my $1 has been well spent indeed.  I'm glad, you might say, to fork it over.

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