In our house, we have two kinds of dinner. Informal dinners mean the kids eat at their table, a small, kindergarten-sized thing in the middle of the living room, and my husband and I eat on the couch. For formal dinners, my husband and I, plus any adult guests, eat at the kitchen table. My kids and their friends? They still eat at the kids’ table. Yep, no matter what, my kids are at the kids’ table.
My kids (who are 5, 7, and 9 years old) have decent table manners; I eat lunch with them in the kitchen sometimes, and we take them out to eat regularly. Our kitchen table is huge, a big farmhouse table a friend built us, so it’s not a space issue. Once in a while, we do have them in the kitchen with us, but very rarely. They don’t watch TV while they eat. They carry their plates to the sink. But they sit at the kids’ table, and here’s why.
Formal dinnertime with my husband is my time with him. Not my kids’ time with him. Not time for family togetherness. Not time to be Mama and Daddy. Time to be Eliza and Chris, drink some wine, eat some decent food, and have adult conversation. If the kids wander in, we don’t shoo them out. I might pick up my youngest and put him on my lap. Our 9 year-old might sit down and try to talk about dinosaurs. But we steer the conversation away, they lose interest, and they leave. Because this is not kid time.
It’s our time.
My husband works all day at a high-stress job. I alternate between frantic parenting and frantic writing all day, with bouts of frantic cleaning in between. By the time we see each other, we’re usually drained. The last thing we want to do is parent small children, talk about bugs, hear about salamander biology, or discuss homeschool (which I also did during the day).
Yes, I think my 9-year-old probably needs to move up to the big table. But honestly? I don’t want him to. Once he doesn’t fit in the chairs, part of me wants him to eat on the damn couch.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, family dinners can help enhance kids’ language development as they hear more words used; kids get “unique opportunities … to learn as they hear longer discussions that include explanations and narratives.” They also say that families talk more during dinner than at any other time, including during reading time and while playing with toys. The AAP says, “Making the ‘Family Table’ a priority from an early age can serve as a ‘vaccine’ against many of the harms that come to children from a hurried lifestyle.”
Well, that doesn’t apply to all families. It doesn’t apply to our family.
My kids are being raised by a writer and an English teacher. My 9-year-old has dysgraphia, but he reads on a 9th grade level. I’ve heard my 7-year-old use the word “plethora” in a sentence — correctly — and my 5 year-old can not only explain the idea of infinity, he’s actually learning to read actual words. He read the word “coop” at the zoo last week. So you’ll excuse me for not showing much concern about my kids’ vocabulary development.
We also have actual conversations with our children on a regular basis. I know this might sound radical to some people, but we talk to our kids regularly about pretty much everything. I talked to my 9-year-old about what toxic people are and why we have a right to say they shouldn’t be in our lives. I talked to my seven-year-old about why he likes Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” so much. Because we listen to music in the car a lot, I solicit their opinions on music often. We talk about what they like and don’t like about school and what we should do differently or keep the same. I tell them stories about being a kid. My husband tells them stories about being a kid. We tell them stories about being babies. In fact, we talk to our kids damn near constantly when we’re not engaged in another activity. So you’ll excuse me for wanting a damn break. I’m a little sick of hearing about probable life cycle of ice age mammals.
In fact, I had a conversation with my 9-year-old about the points I’m making in the last few paragraphs. He agrees that I talk to him about things all the time. He also agrees that he and his brothers have very large vocabularies, and, as he said, “When we go to Target, we like, have conversations about whether aliens are real.” I read him this paragraph, he suggested some changes, and then continued playing Mario Brothers.
Hence, the kids’ table.
Not that the kids are never at the kitchen table. We do science experiments there. They eat breakfast there. They often have lunch there, and I sometimes eat with them. We play board games there. But more importantly, we make a serious point to do other things together as a family. We ride bikes. We go hiking. My husband takes the kids fishing. Hell, I sometimes play Bubble Bobble with them (we have an old school NES). We don’t need some magical nexus of family life. We are each others’.
For many families, whose kids are in a ton of activities, I get the need for family dinners. I really do. People get scattered; there’s a serious need to make a gathering place. But my kids are with me all day every day. They don’t do many traditional teams or activities, at least during the after-school hours, when they might interfere with dinner. And when they’re teens, and drawing away from us, I fully expect to change my tune.
But right now? Kids’ table it is. My husband and I want a break from parenting. We want some time to be adults before we crash out completely shortly after the kids do. Judge us all you want. Judge my reasons all you want. Maybe it wouldn’t work for your fam, and you think I’m being a braggy bitch about my kids and snotty about homeschooling. But I know that our homeschooling, our chances to be with our kids all the time: those are a privilege we enjoy. They aren’t everyone’s. Some people care more about teams and activities than we do (we’re more free range, again, because we have time), and that’s a different parenting choice. Some people just need the space and time that a family dinner affords. We don’t.
So they have a damn kids’ table. Every night. And I feel no shame. In fact, I think it makes marriage stronger, and that benefits us all greatly.