We're going to keep trying until we get it right.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University annually promotes a “holiday” called Family Day (this year it will be celebrated on September 27th), to increase awareness of the importance of family in the role of raising children who are drug- or substance-free. CASA studies substance abuse rates in teens every year, and the overwhelming conclusion is, apparently, that eating dinner as a family is a sure-fire way to raise great kids who are drug free. 

However, nowhere in their studies does CASA address the substance abuse problems in parents who make the committment to have family dinners with their children.

I have to wryly laugh at the Norman Rockwellian image of the family dinner. Nothing could be further from the truth in our house. We start out with all good intentions, sure, but by the time the table is cleared things have deteriorated so badly that we are lucky a food fight hasn’t broken out (begun by a parent). Our dinner from Tuesday night was typical:

“Time to eat!” I called. Sloooowly the children raised themselves from the various chairs, couches and caves where they had been reading (or, more likely, playing on a PSP or iPod) and stumbled like sleepwalkers toward the kitchen. “Olivia, please make sure all the kids have something to drink — and by “something,” I mean milk.”

“Do I have to have milk?” moaned Patrick. “I don’t want milk.” And so it begins.
“Yes, milk. I want your bones to get you through adulthood, please. Milk helps with that.” I don’t think I convinced him.

“What’s for dinner?” asked Lu, as she picked a lid off a pan on the stove.
“As I have now said about 6 times since you all came in from school, we are having burritos.”
Sorry,” she snapped. “I wasn’t one of the ones who asked you. It was just a question,” she harumphed over to the table.

“What else are we having?” Olivia added. “Besides burritos, I mean.” Olivia is often more interested in the side dishes than in the main dish — ever hopeful for pasta or rice.
“Zucchini,” I sang. My secret goal is to see how many children I can make despondent over a healthy meal. Often I can go 2-for-4. I’m off my game though — or the kids are getting too old — since I used to be able to go 4-for-4 with a bit of crying thrown in (from them, not me).

We sit down and say a quick grace, ostensibly while holding hands — but even I hesitate over really grabbing and holding on tight: it is clear to me that some of us believe in hand hygiene more than others.

“Pass your plates down to me,” said Husband. “This dish is too hot to pass.”

“I don’t want zucchini,” announced Patrick. “I hate zucchini.”

“See if you can pretend like you’re at someone else’s house,” I instructed, “like Grandma’s, and she’s just served you dinner. Figure out a way to manage your plate without being rude. Without being rude the way you are being to me, right now.”

“Oh, you’re getting zucchini,” declared Husband,” and you’re going to eat it. Everyone is. And I don’t want to hear it. Pass this to Sister.”

“Do you think we could try, just for tonight for a nice change, to put napkins on laps?” I sighed. “I know this is new to you, because you haven’t heard me say it 4000 TIMES ALREADY. But let’s see if we can all do it.” Every morning I wake up, intent on downplaying the sarcasm, and every day I fail by dinner.

“Hands out of your plate.”
“Buns in your chair.”
“Do you know where your fork is?”
“Stop making that face and just eat it.”
“No, you can’t have more rice. When your plate is empty, we’ll talk.”
“Why are you standing?”
“When you make that slurping noise again with your glass, your meal is over.”
“When you get up out of your chair again, your meal is over.”
“When I see you with your hand in your food again, your meal is over.”
“When I have to speak to you again about your dinner manners, the next words I will say are ‘Good Night, Patrick.’ That’s it — no more chances.”

Ah, family dinner. And then, miraculously:

“Did you know that there are people buried in the Great Wall of China?” Patrick surveyed the table. “Some are men who built it, some are important China rulers, and some are men who died in wars.” (China rulers? Do they measure in inches or centimeters?)

And, lo, an actual conversation broke out. Lu contributed some information about Mongol hordes, Olivia discussed the Forbidden City — and Husband had been there so he jumped in — and Philip was keen to talk about how the Wall can be seen from space. There was a lively discussion about the role of the wall in China’s history, and we hit on pandas, the kinds of egg roll-thingy’s served by a push cart when Husband visited the Wall, and the relative merits of an egg roll versus tonight’s burrito.

It was a delightful 8 minutes or so. And then…

“Why are you talking with your mouth full? Swallow first.”
“Where is your napkin?”
“I told you already, everyone’s getting zucchini. EAT IT.”
“There’s no dessert — no one’s eating dinner.”
“Ok. You’re up — you get to clear the table.”
“Why NOT you?”

“So, how many nights will you be out this week?” I sweetly inquired of Husband as the children scattered to the four winds to avoid kitchen duty. Civility descended upon the kitchen.

“Wow. After that, maybe five?” And I’m not sure he wasn’t joking. “That was, once again, unbelievable.”

“Uh huh,” I said intelligently. “And happily we get to do it again four more times this week — there’s nothing after school for us.”

“How ’bout dinner for two?” he sort-of pleaded. “Whoever said family dinner was so important, empowering, and family-building should spend some time here.”

And they should bring wine, I thought.

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