Pretty much everyone knows that eating dinner together as a family is a good thing to do. It provides an natural opportunity for families to spend time together, it shows kids that quality time with the people you love is a priority, it gives parents a chance to listen to their children talk about whatever’s on their minds, it models healthy eating … there are many great reasons to practice this daily habit as a family. So of course, I support it. You should definitely do your best to sit around the dinner table and eat a meal as a family as often as you can. I support it.
We just don’t do it. Let me tell you why.
I want you to think about the last time you ate a meal with a child of, say, seven years old. A child this age can generally feed themselves, though they still require that other people fetch and pour and cut for them. They should be able to drink from a regular cup, but they are likely to spill. They should eat at least some of what is served for dinner and use reasonably good manners, but they’ll need reminders and maybe some negotiations to do so. And the most significant quality in a child this age is that they love to talk, but kind of lack a few basic conversation skills. They love to have the full attention of the adults who love them, but they really aren’t interesting enough to legitimately deserve this rapt attention. It is the job of you, the adult, to be very patient when hearing about the new desk arrangements in the Grade Two classroom, and to ask questions that imply that you are paying attention. If you happen to be the parent of this child, you know that it is important to be interested in the things that excite your child. If that means listening to a long story about Shopkins over a family meal, then you know you should be interested in Shopkins! Family meal time is quality time! It’s important!
Only I have two of those children. Two wiggly, chatty, silly, milk-spilling story-telling children. They want to be able to tell stories at the dinner table and have people listen with interest, they need manners to modeled, they need to be told to eat their carrot sticks. As there are two of them, this requires even more patience from their parents. Even so, their father and I were determined. We, their loving parents, would prioritize the family meal.
Only those two children have two little sisters.
So. Go back to imagining the last meal you had with a medium-sized child. Now imagine there were two of that child, and they were talking over each other. Now imagine that while you were listening to both of the rambling and pointless stories about Minecraft and Shopkins, you had one toddler trying to put a fork in your eye and a slightly bigger toddler determined to climb onto the table because she wants to put her fist into the potatoes and squeeze her own ketchup.
You’re yelling at the seven-year-old, aren’t you? Yeah, us too.
That’s why we’ve pressed pause on the family dinner for a few months, or maybe years. Because even if something makes a lot of theoretical or philosophical sense, that doesn’t mean it makes a lot of actual sense. I want to have endless patience, but it turns out that I don’t, and I don’t see the sense in putting myself in a situation that consistently requires more patience than I’ve got. So now the kids eat at the counter whenever the food happens to be ready, and the adults eat before or after or at the same time, depending on what works at the moment.
And you know what? We yell a lot less if someone spills now, and we don’t have to fight with our toddlers about sitting politely in a grown-up chair. Plus, it turns out I still hear a LOT about things like Shopkins and Minecraft (or whatever it is they’re into at the moment. It’s so hard to remember). I know who my kids are playing with at school and how they feel about their sisters and their homework and their latest favourite made-up games. I cook relatively healthy meals and make them eat carrots, and I think we still show our kids that quality family time is a priority.
The manners thing is a bit of a lost cause with our little ones, though, so maybe don’t plan on inviting us over for a while …