One of the most formative times for a family is when everyone sits down at the end of the day and has a meal together. Yet, I often wonder what great things are taking place at my family dinners, which include two little kids who are not interested in a civil meal.
Our family dinners are a frenzied mess of distractions, grievances, laughs, timeouts, lessons, screams and that magical moment when everyone is chewing on their chicken at the same time, like a standstill before the next cannon fires.
Basically, we enjoy four courses on most nights.
Course One- Meal rejection. Ahh, nothing like cooking a splendid meal for an ungrateful human. It turns out the time we spend cooking meals happens to be indirectly proportionate to how much the kids like it. Slave over the oven three hours making chicken cordon bleu and broiled asparagus and you can bet your little food critic will send it back to the damn kitchen. Take 13 seconds to warm up some nasty, old, ninja turtle mac-and-cheese and they’ll woof it down like it’s a feast of the gods. Get that nutritious, colorful, balanced meal out of my face, Pops. Tonight I’m craving imitation cheese and high fructose corn syrup.
Course Two- Painfully choppy conversations. There are really two conversations taking place at the table. One is your with your kids, who say or scream whatever they need or whatever is on their mind. The other is between you and your spouse, essentially a race to divulge something meaningful before the next interruption. There’s nothing like having the climax of a stupendous story halted mid-sentence by the little one informing you they don’t like the beets. On the flip-side, I have grand intentions to listen well, but for some reason get distracted by random announcements like “let’s go the museum tomorrow” and “I have to go poopy.” Most conversations end with the empty promise to “tell the rest later,” while we know good and well our brains will be quite fried by then.
Course Three- Spill management. The spills will happen. It’s just a matter of how quickly you can pick the vessel up before you have a really soggy chair on your hands. Kid cups can only prevent so much before they are turned upside down and purposefully poured out on the table to create fun puddles that can subsequently be spread out and splashed upon. The saving grace for us comes in the form of a gluttonous beagle who never hesitates to lick up anything.
Course Four- Negotiations. If it weren’t for our intervention, kids would just eat candy and cookies until they exploded. So we strive for giving them real, nutritious food. But to get them to eat real, nutritious food takes incredible determination and savvy on our part. Dinner becomes a test to see if they can eat enough good food to overcome the unhealthy treat you’ve promised for the meal’s conclusion. The meal starts with general suggestions about what food to consume, and progresses (or regresses) to the point where you are literally bean counting with them until an agreement is reached on what it will take to get the treat.
Truthfully, it’s all about expectations. If you want a pleasant meal and stimulating discussion, you might go insane. If you’re anticipating countless interruptions and general insanity, you just might relish the joys of witnessing your kids be kids.
Bonus: Here’s a fictional but fairly accurate representation of our typical dinner conversation.
Danielle: How was your day today, honey?
Me: It was good. I—
4-Year-Old: Daddy, daddy, daddy. I made a walrus washer today. It goes like this: “Pssshshs, ping-ping, wagga-wagga.” Wanna see? Wanna see? Come see.
Me: After we finish dinner. So yeah honey, I had a lot of meetings. But I did get lunch with—
2-Year-Old: Knock knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Me: Baby who?
2-Year-Old: Baby and a banana peel. Hehe.
Me: Oh man, good one…How was your day honey?
Danielle: Not bad, we had fun at the park with Jenny and her baby. Jenny was telling me about her Mom—
4-Year-Old: Daddy, Ms. Jenny’s baby was really um, um, what was it Mommy?
4-Year-Old: Yeah, gassy. He had a lotta poots so I gave him my truck so he’d feel better.
Me: So how’s Jenny’s Mom doing?
2-Year-Old: Geen beans. Mo geen beans, peez.
(Danielle rises to get more green beans.) Not so great. She just moved into a hospice. They think—
4-Year-Old: What’s a hospiss?
Me: It’s a place that takes care of people who are older…I’m sorry to hear that. I think—
2-Year-Old: Cookie now?
Danielle: Finish your turkey and green beans.
2-Year-Old: Uhhhh. I wan cookie now.
Danielle: Finish your food.
2-Year-Old: No!!! I wan get dowhowhowhowhown!
Me: Sorry, you have to finish your geen beans. I mean green beans.
4-Year-Old: Yeah Ella, finish your beans and you can have a cookie.
2-Year-Old: I no wan too!
Danielle: So anyway.
4-Year-Old: Daddy, daddy, can I show you my walrus washer?
Danielle: I’ll tell you more later.