By Nancy Jewel Poer
We did not feel television was a benefit to growing, creative minds … with TV you are taking in someone else’s story, not living your own.
The only possible and logical daily gathering time was the evening meal.
When I speak with adults about happy childhood memories, special meals almost always are near the top of the list.
It’s official! We are fashionable! Maybe even leading edge. A heady feeling indeed for us gray-haired ones, a generation when one can often be dismissed rather than be seen as current or relevant.
And what has caused the jubilation of relevance? FAMILY MEALS! They have now done the scientific studies (so it must be real). Families that eat together have children that are better adjusted, have higher self esteem, make better grades, and use less drugs. Well, hello!
Our daily family dinner was always an incontestable ritual in our home. At 6:00 p.m., all were expected to report for dinner, regardless of all other demands, such as sport practices, play rehearsals, hanging out with friends etc. Even in the pre-cell phone era, the rules were strict—NO child and NO adult could take a phone call during the meal. The reason was pretty obvious—without this rule the ”family” meal would never have happened! It wasn’t easy to make it work then. For sure, it is even harder to achieve now in our era of unending cyber gadgets.
We didn’t institute this dinner ritual lightly. It was born out of a sense of the big picture of parenting and unwavering determination. We had welcomed six children into the world and our large family and parenting were central to our mission in life. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with our jobs, school, sports, etc., there was no time that we would be together to share as a family, except perhaps to attend church or on fairly rare outings. Certainly with a crew like that, we didn’t go out to eat! We did not feel television was a benefit to growing, creative minds, so that wasn’t a family activity, and besides, with TV you are taking in someone else’s story, not living your own. The only possible and logical daily gathering time was the evening meal. Breakfast was too chaotic, with everyone preparing their lunches, grabbing books and assignments, jackets and track shoes, cellos and backpacks, all to be loaded in the old family van for the grand haul to school. So dinner was it. It was a ritual that had to be established against all the forces for modern life, world, school, and schedules that would take the time away. Today there are even more distractions and it is a major deed to create family time together. Family time has to be fought for. The culture is only too eager to rob us of all our time and attention and to materialistically educate our children to become mindless and insatiable consumers.
Besides no phone calls, further rules for the family dinner table were simple—no gross or unpleasant subjects, no harassing about unfinished chores, no complaints about siblings—all things that spoil the appetite and make one want to be elsewhere. We were there to enjoy a good meal, celebrate the day, and inform one another of our activities. As the family became teenagers (five at once, mind you), the rule against no gross subjects was sorely bent. With twinkling eyes, the boys, now towering lads well over six feet, especially enjoyed teasing Mom by pushing the envelope of respectability and hugely enjoying any huffy reactions they generated. The girls chimed in with mischief as well. I was clearly outnumbered with my sputtering objections, but then at the very edge of full on gross-out they would gleefully jump in and police themselves.
As a young mother of five small children (five in five years, twins upping the numbers quickly), I was quite slender. When older matrons would admire my svelte figure, I was strongly tempted to tell them, “If you had to eat with my kids (as well as chase them), you wouldn’t have much appetite either!” It was quite an affair of smeared bananas, slopped yogurts, and mashed veggies. Three times a day, I faced a table full of young children with varying degrees of dexterity to actually get food into their mouths. For clean up, I would take a large warm wash rag and move down the ranks holding the sweet kissable curve of their necks and their little bobbing heads with one hand, while gently but efficiently mopping their food smeared faces with the other. One day I was shocked, amused and not a little embarrassed, to realize I had my mother by the back of the neck as I moved down the row and nearly gave her a face scrubbing!
We didn’t have the eating wars with our children that I see with so many children today. Complaining wasn’t tolerated, as it flies in the face of the gift of having food to eat and the efforts of the preparer. Feelings could be expressed with, “I haven’t learned to like it yet,” or standards set with, “You may try one bite, one green and one yellow veggie.” Granted, there are certainly children with genuine food issues, but more often it is whims and the fear of the parent to never let the child miss a meal. In our household, if you didn’t eat then there was always another meal coming up soon. Truth is, keeping the family ship moving forward was a major project and it was clearly impossible to be held hostage to thrice a day food mutinies of small children. They learned this so quickly, and they thrived. As adults, they and their spouses are all great cooks, and have a fine sense and appreciation of good healthy food.
When they all got to the elementary school age, a ground swell of general assertions of individuality arrived, along with a deterioration of manners as all the “please” and “thank you’s” so carefully instilled in the formative years needed new motivations. This led me to establish the ritual of the Penny Pot. In later interviews with all the crew, I found that they loved this innovation. It worked like this. They were each given some money (25-50 cents), quite a great sum in their young eyes, and it was theirs to keep if their good manners prevailed. But for any transgression (talking with mouth full, reaching in front of others for things that could be passed, complaining about food, not using a napkin), they were required to give up a penny of their treasure to the Penny Pot, prominently awaiting contributions in the center of the table. This not only awakened awareness of delinquent manners, but siblings quite righteously noted each other’s offenses, so they couldn’t be denied. In short, it worked.
When we have had otherwise good and sociable people at our table in later years, I am sometimes taken aback at their lack of basic manners. I am then grateful that my cosmopolitan, world-traveling children know the difference.
How one asks, can we have such a ritual in today’s frenetic world? For sure, it is hard. But try to have a least some consistent meals during the week. When I speak with adults about happy childhood memories, special meals almost always are near the top of the list. Here is the payoff. I am delighted to say that all my children have an evening meal together, and their lives are plenty busy. But it is important to them, and they make it a priority. I have been profoundly grateful that our 14 grandchildren have grown up with this beautiful sharing.
As grandparents we experience the family meal with new dimensions. We often have my son’s family for dinner on weekends. They have two young boys, hardly old enough to be cognizant of mealtime niceties, but I always supply them—flowers on the table, cloth napkins with their own napkin rings, candles, soft lights, glasses poured with water, and nice serving dishes.
The candlelight softens not only the contours of the meal and the room, but the day, itself. We come together, and it is special. There is always a grace to begin, usually sung, just as we have done all our lives. Then we take hands, circle, and bless the meal with hopes for peace in the world. So many times over the years, I have seen how the littlest ones, sitting in their high chairs, get so happy when we do this. Their eyes sparkle and shine with their deep delight and their angel-wise knowing of the magnitude of this rich and important human sharing! For possibly the most important aspect of any meal is the partaking of a moment of gratitude for our privilege of these gifts of earth and heaven, and the labor of others that provides us with our daily bread.
As conversation flows it is kept inclusive with the children sharing their accomplishments as well as the adults. The children may ask and be excused when they are through, but in fact they often are not eager to leave. There are no video games in our home to pull them away. The meal finished, the boys find their parents laps and slip into their comforting arms. Now is the time for sharing, and it is sharing that can hardly happen any other way.
There with the soft candlelight gleaming in wide and curious young eyes, the family lore is passed on. “Do you remember the time?” or, “Now, when your father was a boy …” We share tales of mischief, humor, bravery, adventure, and life—in short, the family history and legacy. Where else, we could ask, is this sharing going to happen?
One can sense the fulfilling warmth of the eddies reaching out from our communal meal in ever-widening circles, table and home, to parents and grandparents, to the friends and ancestors beyond in spirit. We are embraced, accompanied, and surrounded. Snuggled in their parents’ laps at the family table, the children are held in the matrix of family and tradition, the cycle of life, and knowing they are a treasured part of it all.
Nancy Jewel Poer is a co-founder of Rudolf Steiner College. She is an author and filmmaker. A noted pioneer in the home death movement, Ms. Poer’s latest projects include the award-winning documentary, The Most Excellent Dying of Theodore Jack Heckelman, and The Tear: A Children’s Story of Transformation and Hope When a Loved One Dies.
This article is reprinted with permission from LILIPOH magazine. LILIPOH is a Waldorf- and Rudolf Steiner-inspired quarterly publication with a focus on folks interested in holistic health, well-being, creativity, spirituality, gardening, education, art, and social health. Please visit our website at www.lilipoh.com to learn more.