Many years ago, when Molly and I were just newly embarked on the whole adventure of marriage and family, we read something that said that the most significant indicator of successful family life was how often the family had dinner together. If a family had dinner together four or more times a week, that had a strong correlation with all sorts of positive indicators of social and mental health. And so, we worked very hard to establish family dinnertimes as a rock-bottom feature of our family life together.
Now, you wouldn't be surprised if I told you that the theory and the practice haven't always corresponded as closely as we might have wished. Especially once our kids hit middle school, and started getting involved with sports teams (why is it that middle-school sports teams can't seem to practice at any other time than when our family is sitting down to dinner?), dinnertimes where the whole family was together around the table became increasingly hit-and-miss.
But, truth to tell, as our kids (and, I have to say, especially our boys) hit middle school, family dinners, even when we were all present and accounted for, became exercises in futility on an entirely different front - the capacity (or should I say, the incapacity) of the kids to maintain focus on anything like a coherent conversation. I really don't know how it happened, but at some point, our dinnertimes became an ongoing cacophony, with one child idly singing to herself, another idly tapping his plate with his silverware, two boys reciting extended dialogue from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', and various and sundry other random noises, assorted pokings of fingers into ear-holes and other available orifices, originating from various other children, all occurring simultaneously and without regard for anything else that might be going on at the time. Molly might ask one of the children how their day went at school, and before the poor child could answer, or, more likely, in the middle of their answer, prompted by something they said, Monty Python would spontaneously erupt from the other side of the table, and thus would end the conversation.
And nothing we did helped the situation. On many occasions, Molly or I would loudly interrupt the recitation; sometimes we would try to give the floor back to the child who was interrupted, and more often we would just launch into the standard rant about showing respect to our brothers and sisters, and dinnertime isn't about showing off our ability to recite movie dialogues, etc, etc. And, once we were finished, they'd start over, only this time reciting from 'Napoleon Dynamite'.
A couple times, the noise got so out of hand that Molly and I just looked at each other, grabbed our silverware, and started yelling and pounding along with the kids. Which actually brought a little humor to the situation, much preferable to the standard anger and frustration. But it still left us a long way from the kind of peaceful, respectful dinnertimes we aspired to and hoped for.
We never just gave in to the cacophony; we continued to try to establish some kind of order, but it always just seemed like an uphill struggle, and a losing one at that.
These days, we have five children living at home - 4M and everyone younger. Dinners are a bit more peaceful; 3M was our main 'comedian', and absent his instigation, things don't get out of hand quite so quickly, or so irretrievably. But 4M and 5M are both heavy into sports teams, which, inevitably (or so it seems) practice during the dinner hour, so most nights we have the three youngest kids around the table with Molly and me.
A couple weeks ago, though, we had all seven of us around the table at the same time. Without any instigation from Molly or me, 5M brought up a question that had come up in one of his classes. While Molly and I did double-takes, 4M chimed in with a similar question from one of his classes. Soon, we were engaged in a really rich discussion on an interesting question, with all of the kids, except maybe 8M, contributing. We touched on questions of theology, moral philosophy, science, mathematics, and all manner of things. We stayed at the table a good 20 minutes longer than we usually do, and nobody was clamoring to be excused. It was very cool.
When we finally ended, and were clearing the table afterward, 7M said to me, "This was a really good family dinner, Dad."
And, in the course of agreeing with him, I might have had to stifle a tear. . .