Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Family Dinner: Is there a right way to structure this ritual?

I used to feel like such a failure because my family dinner times look nothing like the suggested text book pictures. Nor do they look like the happy TV families. My nightly family dinners would probably make many professionals cringe, but they work for us. I grew up eating dinner at the table almost every night, but my parents were extremely flexible, especially when we had various activities. It's actually still a cherished time when my sisters and I sit around my parents' table with them, well beyond the length of the meal, sharing stories and memories. The fact is the dinner table is a wonderful place to recharge and reconnect because you have to sit down and look at each other. But is it the be all and end all? Does it always have to be the same place or structure for every family?

My answer is no. I believe family dinners are important, not because of the meal or the time of day, but because they are unplugged family time. I have tried your traditional family dinner. I have three children with varying special needs all under the age of eight. The Husband works late and most days does not get home until bed time. Traditional family dinners where we all sit around the table and joyfully discuss our day are just not realistic. First of all, we're already down one member, because he's at work. Second of all, have you ever tried to enjoy a meal with three hungry and tired children?

I know I could have fought it. I know I could have pushed through and insisted that family dinner time was a mandatory event in our day, but it seemed like an uphill battle and a fight I did not want to have. Yes, I feed my children dinner and no, it is not in front of any electronic entertainment. However, it does not look like your "made for TV" family dinner. I prepare dinner, while the girls set the napkins and the silverware. They wash their hands, and they say a prayer of thanks for the food. Then, they thank whoever prepared their dinner. The last part is a ritual they have added themselves. Most nights, I bustle around the kitchen, washing the dishes, preparing for the next evening activity or cleaning up from a previous one. Often times I play music, sing and dance and engage the girls with laughter. Sure, we talk about their day and what they did. We talk about what's next and anything they might bring up. It's an active environment, but when I gave up trying to sit quietly and force them to have a quiet meal, our evenings became exponentially more enjoyable and relaxed. I think in a large part it was because I was more relaxed.

Family dinner time is a ritual for memory making, for uninterrupted connections with your children, for teaching manners and respect, but I do not think there is a right way to structure this. I sincerely think you need to find what works for your family and for your situation. For us, weekend family breakfasts became a ritual. It's amazing how much more agreeable three young children are when they first wake up in the morning. This makes the experience very enjoyable. So much so that my five year old is always asking for a big family breakfast.

I encourage you to find unconnected time that you can spend with your family. Perhaps it's during a meal. Perhaps it is making a puzzle or a drawing or playing a game of Chutes and Ladders. Whatever it is, be together and enjoy each others' time. Most importantly, relax, because when you relax the rest of the family will too, and you will certainly enjoy your time together even more!

Do you have a favorite family ritual? Do you agree or disagree that there is not a right way to structure family dinner? Please share in the comments below.

Amanda loves any time her whole family can be together with no crying or screaming! 

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