I love it when other parents pull back the curtain and expose their parenting style, and not just so I can indulge in a little schadenfreude. It provides me with an opportunity to gaze inward, question, and perhaps modify my own parenting choices.
Cara recently wrote a post about her life as a Laid Back Mama, and it got me thinking about meal time at our house. I’ve written before about feeding toddlers, but that was about the food, not the manners. I’d like to think of myself as pretty mellow, but as my husband, my daughters, or anyone who has spent at least seven minutes with me will tell you, I’m just not. Especially not at dinnertime.
Now, before I share with you my own brand of Mama Crazy, you should know I come by it honestly. My father’s heritage is German, and even though our family has been in the States for over a century, we’ve still got the obnoxious last name and the anal-retentive obsession with manners and punctuality to prove it. My great-grandfather used to bark out numbered rules at the dinner table; my father remembers that 1 meant “sit down,” 2 was “shut up,” and 7 was “elbows off the table”. I think my Dad has blocked the rest from his memory, and understandably so.
I haven’t numbered our mealtime rules (yet), but like a good yekke, I do have expectations for how my daughters (ages 3 and 18 months) should behave at the table. Yes, it’s probably genetic and cultural (my husband is also half-German, and he and his parents also appreciate good manners), but I do believe that teaching your children how to act at the table is important. Most social gatherings and Jewish holidays include meals–prime opportunities for family and friends to judge you and your parenting abilities get to know your kids (and vice versa), which tends to go a lot better for everyone if the kids behave. Even when you’re home alone, you’ve still got three meals a day to get through, and there’s no reason why they can’t be enjoyable for everyone.
Good mealtime behavior takes work, and rules. Here are some of mine:
1. Food goes on your plate or in your mouth. I may encourage, but I don’t force my girls to eat. However, uneaten food does not belong on the table, a chair, the floor, or your hair. It goes on your plate.
2. Your tushy stays on your chair. We don’t stand in our chair, or get down and up repeatedly throughout the meal. You can kneel if the chair is too low, and you can get up to go to the bathroom (or get your diaper changed, as the case may be). If you want to be excused from the table, that’s ok, but then you’re done with your meal.
3. No toys at the table. Dinner time is a time to enjoy our food (or reject it, as often happens in our house), have a conversation, or sit quietly and listen to music (which we generally have on during dinner). It’s not a time for playing with toys.
4. Keep your hands to yourself. My big girl often wants to reach over and put her grubby little hands all over me, or grab bites off her sister’s plate. Despite my extended family’s long-standing tradition of eating off each other’s plates, I believe you need to learn the rules before you can break them.
5. Keep your hands out of your hair. This is generally a good idea, especially when the kids still eat with their hands at times (I’m ok with that), when they’ve both got long hair, and when Mama can’t bring herself to bathe two babies every single night.
6. Don’t push your plate away. Although I really understand my daughters’ impulse to shove their plate away when there is an objectionable item on it (as there almost always is), or when they’re done, they’re learning to tolerate having the plate in front of them.
7. Use your napkin. Even my toddler can do this. Not well, mind you, but she’s working on it, and I’m proud of her for it.
8. No feet on the table. That’s just plain rude.
I’m sure there are a few more rules, but I can’t remember them all now. You’ll notice, though, that I don’t make the girls try everything on their plates, and I don’t require them to keep their hands or faces clean. Eating can be a messy business, and I’m ok with that. Also, no subject is taboo for dinnertime conversation; we have a fair amount of potty talk (literally) during our meals. The rules get flexed a lot outside the house, depending on the situation. Nonetheless, I do spend a lot of time during our meals at home teaching and reminding the girls of the rules, which isn’t always fun, but the end result is that we can take our kids out to a restaurant or to a seder or Shabbat dinner and there’s a good chance they’ll behave. Perhaps one day we’ll even dine with the Queen, and when our moment comes, we’ll be ready.