Dinnertime: nourishment of body and soul

As we settle into the whirlwind of fall activity, it may become necessary to set aside down time to be a Family. 

“Down time?! Are you Crazy?! Between ferrying kids to and from scouts and sports and dance and karate and gymnastics and music lessons and play practice and jobs, and the multitude of meetings and appointments and errands and other obligations required of us, how in the world can there possibly be time left to set aside?”

There’s a story about a teacher who presents her students with a jar filled with rocks and the question of whether or not the jar is full. They unanimously answer that yes, indeed the jar is full. She pours pebbles over the rocks, shaking the jar gently and filling the crevices between the stones. “Is the jar full now?” “It sure looks full” Sand is added. “Full?” “Definitely!” She proceeds to add water.

This is suggested as a metaphor for setting priorities in life. The rocks represent the things that make our lives full: family, partner, children, friends, and health. The pebbles represent other things that matter: work, school, car, house… The sand and water are everything else. If you fill the jar with “sand” first, it leaves no room for the relationships that are most critical to our well-being in this life.

How can we find time to really get to know one another as individuals living in the same family, when everyone is running around doing whatever it is they do from dawn until bed time?

Having grown up during a time when most families sat down together to share the evening meal, I never questioned that the dinner hour provides the time necessary to connect with one another. But things have changed a lot since then and consistently gathering together over family dinner is no easy feat. So we settle for a drive through McDonald’s and eat together in the car while running to the next appointed task. Round and round we go, until we arrive home frazzled and grumpy, with little patience left for our most beloved.

The dinner table is the place to learn manners and how to be polite; it is where our children learn to be social with grace. You are a role model and when your children hear you say “please” and “thank you”, observe you sitting still, chewing with your mouth closed, and listening to one another, they are more likely to follow suit. If being polite in social situations is the expectation, children learn to carry their manners into other aspects of life.

By setting aside time to share dinner, more planning and careful preparation goes into creating a healthier meal than what we are able to get on the fly. One way to make this seem more manageable is to get into a routine of preparing several meals at a time for the freezer (soup, spaghetti sauce, chili, casseroles…) This in itself can become a family affair, with the added benefit of teaching the kids kitchen safety and the basics of cooking.

At the dinner table (or perhaps breakfast is a better option for your family), we become exposed to our children’s way of life through discussion of school, friends, books, music, TV, current events and societal pressures. Sharing a meal with those we love allows us to celebrate and commiserate, to problem-solve and learn about where we fit into the grand scheme of things.

When my kids were little and needed to have dinner before Daddy could get home, they would later join us at table with a bowl of cereal before going to bed. As they became involved in their own extra-curricular activities (which invariably occurred through the typical dinner hour) mealtime was pushed back, and often we did not sit down until 8:30 or later.

But here’s the thing: Two of my sons have gone off to set up housekeeping together with some of their friends in another state, and they continue to sit down together for dinner every night. For as my 24 year-old has so wisely observed: “Family is sacred.”- RDW (9-17-10)

There are many ways to communicate

As a parent, you feel like a broken record, repeating the same words of advice or reprimand over, and over, and over. You might begin to wonder if you should take your child to a hearing specialist. In fact, when my kindergartner came home with the paper ear pinned to his shirt indicating that he had had his hearing tested that day, I fully expected to receive a phone call with the dreaded news that he was hearing impaired! 
So often the assumption is made that the kids aren’t paying attention when we discuss things with other adults regarding our issues in parenting, financial concerns, marital difficulties, grandma’s terminal illness, or current events. 
Believe me when I say they are listening. We need to remain vigilant to their presence when discussing matters that may be upsetting, misconstrued, or place little ones in a position of taking sides. 
Young children take things literally; they are not yet able to distinguish a figure of speech from actuality. Once when I said, “I’m pooped!”, my little son responded, “you better wipe yourself!” An off the cuff remark like, “I’ll die if I don’t get that job,” will instill an incapacitating fear for your life if overheard by your preschooler. 
We tend to forget that there are many ways to communicate. What child does not understand a nod or shake of the head, a beckoning finger, an index finger to lips, a scowl, or a sincere look of approval? 
It’s when you think kids are not paying attention that they take notice. They realize that when you hang their artwork on the refrigerator, you appreciate the work that went into it. They remember the times created especially for them: the effort put into a special event on their behalf; the flowers, cookies or favorite meal in their honor; time set aside to give them your undivided attention. They even come to understand that the reason you yell when they are doing something foolhardy, is because you love them and want them to stay safe. 
Always keep in mind that actions speak louder than words. Children reflect our attitudes regarding prejudice, forgiveness, the environment, our lifestyle. They grow to exhibit the values and actions learned in their home. 
A child who’s parents use force, learns that this is how one gets what they want. Parents who smoke cigarettes are that much more likely to raise children who smoke. Ask just about any kid who hates bugs and snakes, and invariably mama hates them as well. You can pretty much bet when you see a little boy struggling like the dickens not to cry, that he has been taught that “big boys don’t cry- crying is for sissies” 
There have been many times through the years that I’ve wondered how my kids could possibly have known how beloved they were. Sure I would tell them a hundred times a day that I loved them, but did they believe me when it seemed to me all that came out of my mouth was cautionary or reprimanding? I swear I sounded exactly like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, even to myself: “Mwa mwa mwa mwa mwaahh”. 
When one of my kids was in 5th grade participating in the D.A.R.E. Program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education ), he was asked to write about a time when he felt especially loved. His answer: “When my mother stayed home from an important field trip because I was sick” 
As my children grow into adulthood it occurs to me that I no longer have to tell them to find something that they are passionate about, to do their job and do it well, to make the world a better place, that there are consequences to every action we take. They have heard all the words. All we can do now is live our lives in the way we hope for them to live theirs. 
-RDW (9-15-10)

Learning to get along together

      No matter who we are, at some point in our daily walks through life, we encounter someone we just don’t like (or someone who dislikes us) for no apparent reason other than we rub each other the wrong way.
I see this condition arise among people over and over again—in the politics of a workplace, as a cause of upheaval among church congregations, within civic organizations, even on public transportation (“I refuse to ride with that bus driver!”).
      I’m sure every one of us has had this reaction to someone with whom we must come into contact. Does this mean we have to rally others to stand with us against this person, or to stop attending something that is meaningful to us? We must remember that our response to these types of situations sets an example for our children.
     Given the opportunity, children become quite good at working things out between themselves. They cannot, however, be expected to do so just because we tell them to. We need to give them the specific words necessary to effectively express themselves: “I don’t like it when you say this, or do that, or treat me this way—it makes me feel bad. Please stop!”, or “I’m using this right now, you can use it when I’m finished with it.” It never ceases to amaze me how quickly children respond to each other once they learn to communicate in this way.
      Even as children become teens, we will find it necessary to remind them again and again how important it is to practice this kind of communication in order to get along in the world. Indeed, a lesson once learned the hard way runs over us like a train in a completely different situation, sometimes over and over.
We need to remember to learn from their example as well. Because young children live so in the moment they are able to let go of a disagreement without holding a grudge.
      Children will mirror the way they see us behaving, regardless of what we tell them. We forget how much little ones pick up from eavesdropping on conversations we hold in their presence, conversations not intended for little ears. It can be quite shocking to hear the things that come out of the mouths of babes until we realize that they are parroting our very choices in words and intonations.
      When I encounter a difficult relationship, I know there is a little girl inside who is reacting to something that happened long ago, and I need to remind myself that I am beautiful, capable, and competent adult.
      We have a most powerful role in helping to shape these young people entrusted to our care. Rather than allowing ourselves to be sucked into feelings that are petty and mean (we all do it), we need to put principles before personality and remember that children follow our lead. 
RDW (2006, revised 2010)

Opening the lines of communication

As parents we often find fault with ourselves, and with the prospect of a New Year, tell ourselves that this year will be different: I will be more patient. I will spend more quality time with the kids. I will be a better parent.
As sincere as our intentions might be, a plan is needed to succeed in accomplishing such lofty goals. 
We all have struggles with our children. We have our day to day spats, but sometimes the same issue becomes a repeated bone of contention. So often we find ourselves entering into the same fight (over chores, discipline, money, personal time, family expectation…) over and over. The more frustrated we feel, the more unreasonable we become, the less likely we are to reach an acceptable compromise. Round and round we go in a circular dance that goes nowhere.
A change in our approach to the problem is required.
Family meetings are a most useful tool in raising a family. They provide an opportunity to discuss allocation of responsibility, plan family activities, and resolve conflict. Having a planned agenda helps to stay focused on the matter at hand, and can be created through the week as issues arise. Topics might include chores, menu planning, discipline, upcoming events and appointments, planning time together as a family, use of television and computer, or anything important in the life of your family.
One of my biggest frustrations was getting the kids to follow through with their chores. Creating a job chart made the expectations for each family member clear and was useful to a certain extent. Finally, we allowed the children to decide among themselves if they would rather rotate setting and clearing the table, doing the dishes, cleaning the counter and sweeping the floor, or choose one job to keep as theirs for the week, or month (or years as it turned out in our case). If one member of the family did not follow through with their obligations, it bollixed up the whole routine. If privileges were lost as a result, in the next meeting the others had a say about that: “How can I do my job if he doesn’t do his?” or “If you don’t do your share, someone else has to do it and that’s not fair” They responded to pressure placed on them by their siblings more readily than to my incessant nagging.
Menu planning allows each person to have a say in what kinds of things will be for dinner in the coming week. You might let everyone have their pick one night a week, or you may decide to plan by consensus. Choosing what they have for dinner is not only a privilege, it is a responsibility, and healthy choices need to be made. This is where your guidance comes in: “Would you rather have beans or carrots?”
When kids have a say in things that are important to them, satisfactory compromises can be more easily reached. Even children as young as three years old are able to participate in these kinds of conversations if they are presented in terms of simple choices.
During the week, various issues arise between siblings: bullying, territorial disputes, impact of one not doing his or her job. When the kids participate in the decisions regarding consequences and conflict resolution, they begin learning to consider how their actions affect others.
So much of the everyday conflict inherent in raising kids can be avoided by discussing issues during a time when we are not in the middle of a heated argument. Letting the children participate in deciding how family matters are resolved allows them to see that they are an integral part of the family unit, and that it is important for us to work together. Having a time set aside to bring all concerned in on the decision making process, clarifies expectations, improves communication, and unites the family in a common purpose. -RDW (1-7-2010)