I am not proud of this fact, but I have occasionally been known to watch the show about the former couple who has more than a dozen children, even though it makes me feel dirty and I generally can’t tolerate more than about 15 minutes.
I am going against my better instincts here to dwell on this family because last night, as the brood sat down to lunch, I noticed that the 5-year old kindergartners, were sitting at the table in high chairs. High Chairs, people. At 5. That would be school age. They were also drinking their beverages out of plastic cups with lids and straws, which to my mind is just one step up from sippy cups. Or lunch at SeaWorld.
Part of me gets it. The high chair, for instance, keeps the kids still. (Um, trapped?) I have certainly witnessed my 5-year old fall flat to the floor in the middle of dinner over a cooked carrot. Yes, this makes me crazy, but the behavior is cause for immediate reprimand. The choice in our house is to sit still, on your bottom, or leave the table for good. And I have thrown dinner away after a warning. But the point is, I believe in agency and choice, and treating little kids like kids–not like babies who have no control over their own behavior. Learning to eat in our house also means learning how to sit still, and how to behave appropriately at the table, and allowing our two to attain a certain amount of pride and confidence in being able to handle a meal.
Of course, I can’t really t imagine what it’s like to have 6 squirmy kids around the table, but still. We have dear friends with triplet boys, all of whom have some of the best eating habits and manners of any children we know. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t in high chairs at five. As for me, I would never put my nearly five-year-old in a booster seat, much less restain him. In fact, he would scream bloody hell if I did.
As for the cups-with-lids, I understand that, too: they’re meant to control spills and, thus, mess at mealtimes. But again, when do you let kids learn to sit at the table and feed themselves neatly and independently?
I have some experience here: My daughter is a spiller. When she was very young, nary a meal went by when something wasn’t spilled. It was a pain in the ass. She gets this from me, a chronic spiller for most of life. It was the joke in the family, to the point where my sister would not let me drink coffee in her house outside of the kitchen. I have, with motherhood, gotten better. But it still drives my husband nuts. He never spills. (Nor for that matter, does my son. I suspect there’s a gene for it.) But instead of giving Ella a lidded cup and letting her bang her drink all over the table with impunity, we gave her size-appropriate cups and coached her on how to be careful at the table. It took a long time. Years, really. But she learned (and yes, she learned before kindergarten.)
The bottom line for this rather ungenerous post is less about criticizing the choices of That TV Family and more about what my husband and I think is generally important for teaching kids to eat, which is: teaching them manners at the table, inviting them to be fully a part of the meal, in every respect, without special treatment or exceptions. I deplore made-for-kid food and tableware. With the exception of substituting smaller, salad forks for regular forks, and teaspoons for tablespoons, our kids get the same place setting we get. This is an aesthetic choice, clearly, but also a behavioral one. On the one hand, it just looks better to have a nice table setting, but a real place setting also sends the message that your children’s behavior at the table should be just like an adults. Kids don’t get special treatment, or exceptions, or, for that matter, excuses for their manners or behavior. They should learn to eat neatly, and a five year old can eat without spilling or falling off his chair. He can learn more, in fact, but that”s another post.
And believe me, the kids notice all of these things. Everytime I light candles, or use a new tablecloth, or give Ella and Finn special glasses, they notice and feel special, and thank us. Really, they do. They’re learning to respect the meal and the food and the people around the table. As a corollary, teaching manners and behavior also makes dining out a lot more pleasant. The moral: make your kids fully a part of your meals. Introduce them to the aesthetic as well as the gastronomic pleasures of the table. Even if they eat early (which ours do on weekdays), don’t hurry too much. Take time to set a basic table for them, sit down and join them as often as you can, with a glass of bubbly water or wine or maybe a small appetizer for yourself. Remember that meals feed your family in many ways. Don’t shortchange your kids, and they won’t shortchange you.