Tuesday, October 4, 2011
A Family That Eats Together...
So we wound up in the newspaper. Well, not the paper, paper. Rather we were included in the online version of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, for an article about family dinners in America. (I had a bit of a laugh when I discovered that the photo they used of us is named "extra families slide", which made me feel kind of like we were leftovers. Still. It was cool to see us in the paper.)
I think the topic of family dinners is an important one, because I think in the answers to the questions about how we experience the evening meal are revelations to how we're living our lives in general. What kinds of food are we eating? Are we working too much or too late to make it home for dinner? Do we eat the same foods as our children or are we making separate meals for them? What kinds of things are happening around the act of meal preparation? (According to Jake, if you're in my house, you're watching very violent television.) But the question that's become most salient for me is: What actually happens once we're sitting down to the meal? I've written in earlier posts about how stressful a family meal can be at our table, because the kids fight, they may not eat as much (or at all) as we'd like, they get up from the table, etc., etc. This is consistently disappointing, because what we'd love to experience is a calm and connected time to wind down together and collectively recount the events of our day. In other words, our expectations for what the meal should be like are grossly at odds with the reality of our family dinners.
Recently I read an incredibly enlightening blog post written by the husband of a friend of mine (who herself writes an excellent blog on family and eating) who is a doctor specializing in eating disorders. His post, about the dynamic between parents and small children during meal time, for me served as a potent reminder (if the thought ever actually occurred to me at all) that this time, dinner time, with my children, functions as an extremely important opportunity for them to express themselves to my husband and I in ways that their words cannot always achieve. Sometimes at dinner the otherwise very independent Charlie is wanting desperately to sit in my lap, or he is an angry superhero who wants justice for his people (with the rest of us starring as the baddies). Sometimes the very capable Michael pretends to be a very small baby who needs me to feed him. Sometimes Jake, who usually finds his brother an interloping annoyance, chooses mealtime to invent games to play with Charlie. And because I want everyone to "behave" at dinner, my first instinct in any of these scenarios is often to try and deny my children their desires to deviate from my perceived norms of good table manners. I want them to sit. I want them to eat. I want them to do it politely and without a fuss. But A) I know this is a completely unrealistic expectation for me to have of them and B) I know that in those moments in which I'm able to relax and let them be who they are (playful, funny, silly, restless, boys, brothers) dinner is a better experience for all of us. Yes, they need to say please and thank you, yes they need to eat with utensils and behave a bit more like humans than like animals, but that's really it for now. Children evolve and mature. They even grow up. If I can use family dinners as an opportunity to practice presence of mind and acceptance of my family just as it is, I can probably have faith that someday these boys will eat with napkins in their laps. And the novelty of potty jokes might eventually wear off. Or maybe not.