Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dominic's Quest for Civility

Yeah, well... So I may have let it get away from me a little over the past couple of years. It's sad, yes, it is; but I admit it.

We've become a bit lax at mealtimes.

You know it has to be true if your fifteen-year-old takes the floor, raising his voice over the din of circus acts, to present an impassioned plea for civility.

For heaven's sake, have some civility, you hooligans!

And he's right. It's time to get things in hand. We used to have much more in the way of polite repasts when the big boys were little boys. We had somewhat organized conversation, the forks were set on the left and the knives on the right; if we didn't have our napkins in our laps, we did at least have napkins. But, in the last few years, all that has dissolved into more of a free-for-all. It's embarassing, but true.

And hard to fix. There are lots more of us now, for one thing -- and lots more going on with so many ages, temperaments, and pursuits. Because of his job, Dan is rarely home for dinner, so it's usually just me and the kids, which makes things, ipso facto, more casual. Less structured. Sometimes haphazard. Occasionally chaotic. And, to add to the fun, William, bless his sanguine little heart, has been compared to young Helen Keller at the table. (Yes, I know. Isn't that awful?) We have a hard time keeping him in his seat, and rarely get through a meal without his treating us to either a fuss fit or a stand-up comedy act. We really do know these are bad habits we have to break. And we all work on him (when we're not laughing at him), but he's singularly stubborn, and going through an eating phase, which makes things even more interesing.

(Have you ever tried working a child through an eating phase? We've learned through the years that, annoying as they are, they're temporary, normal and not worth obsessing over. And, though it may seem like coddling to his oldest brothers who don't remember their own food phases, those of us who live with William have just accepted his three-year-old menu. It's simple; life is good as long as you give him: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, dry cereal, bananas, or anything with noodles --and you have to let him talk about how he's eating worms the whole time he slurps the noodles down, and keep the secret that Mommy grated carrots into his spaghetti sauce. Piece of cake. Which, is incidentally something he will also eat.)

Thankfully, though, outside of William, all the children will eat anything you put in front of them, possibly even if it's moving. The fact is that they usually don't stop talking long enough to notice if anything's moving, much less whether or not it's something they like or don't like. At any given mealtime, two or three different conversations are generally going on at one time, merging, changing, and morphing into and out of one another like traffic on the Beltway. There are the occasional crashes yes, and sidetrips to coffee shops and comedy clubs. And the occasional musical interlude, with Anna very often carrying on her own private little concert down at the end of the table. One or two of the teenagers is likely to be wildly gesticulating in response to a tease-fight and breaking loudly into other conversations to garner support for an argument. Or someone, usually Theresa, is jumping up to grab a book to look for the passage that illustrates what she's talking about. And there's no sense in interrupting the conversation, you know, to ask someone to pass the bread or butter or iced tea pitcher; it's easy enough to just reach across and grab what you need. Why not? And elbows on the table are not as bad as feet on the table, right?

=sigh= You get the picture. Mealtimes here are more like a German Biergarten than a Victorian Tearoom. And, though I really can't say I'd like for our dinners at home to be formal and stiff with tearoom manners, I'd like for us not to scandalize any visitors who might not be the beer-stein-swinging sort.

So, in defference to Dominic's quest for civility, and because we really do need to discipline ourselves better, we made a stab at a polite dinner tonight. Napkins were folded at every place, and, after a little coaching, everyone put one on his or her lap (some after trying them on their heads first). Elbows were kept off the table (except for when it was necessary for two or three of the kids to illustrate how bad it looks to eat with your chin resting on your hand). Mouths were kept shut while chewing (except for those people who simply had to say something, regardless of whether their food was swallowed first or not). The tea pitcher and crackers were passed politely to waiting hands (and completely around the table from hand to hand, when deemed necessary). The chicken and noodles were eaten with a minimum of slurping (and William, by some quirk of fortune, didn't say the word "worm" even once).

Dinner was eaten, and it was not painful. We made it through just fine. Conversation still merged and swerved, running over and through, in and out, but tonight it kept hitting the Courtesy Traffic Circle -- which slowed things down a bit.

And gave us something new to talk about.

We'll see how dinner tomorrow night goes. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if the traffic circles are ignored in favor of driving over medians and grassy berms.

* Here's something fun to check out: a manners-based blog called The Goops Gazette!
* And here is a wonderful article: Courtesy: An Essential Element of the Catholic Home
**Heaven knows, we need all the help we can get! Any pointers out there?


Blessings each day said...

I felt like I was right there and loved every minute of it!
With only three little children at one time, I don't stand a chance of competing with the chaos that you can generate, but my three did their best.

There's another little boy thing...talking about eating worms, in fact that's usually a way to get them to eat even better!
My son loved talking about disgusting things at the dinner table, thereby totally grossing out his older sisters. (When I wasn't laughing hysterically, I would try to stop him).

As for pointers, am I not "preaching to the choir"? What worked for us was always a combination of bribes and/or threats (e.g., week-ends were the only times they were allowed to have candy and that privilege could be lost).

blessings on your loving chaos,


p.s. only wish I could be there for at least one meal...sigh. :-)

Heather Jaracz said...

Its funny how our first two (both girls) were coached with manners and a no-nonsense attitude at the table. Now our third (a boy) is the family jester at dinner. He opens up proudly to show a mouth full of food and everyone laughs! I can't imagine his newborn brother joining in on the fun someday or how it would be with any future siblings...

I say let them be little! Just so they have an idea of how it's supposed to be...

Natalie said...

I remember my mother making us watch Manners videos and then expecting us to just have them. I think instead, she should of just had those expectations of us from the beginning. I hated those videos. I kind of of agree that kids should be kids, but they should know which settings are for manners and which settings are for messings. Like that wedding coming up would not be a good time to talk about worms and show everybody partially chewed food in your mouth. Good luck with your littles!

MightyMom said...

well God Bless you girl!

I'd go for ONE civil/nice meal a week (with Dad if possible...) just to show that it can be done. :-)

and have you seen my Momma's Sauce?
It's a must for those feeding phases!


goes great on worms!

Kim H. said...

Great post! Girl, I've so been there. And yes, it's bad when the three year old pipes in "stop eating, we haven't prayed yet!"

I'm all for nice manners -- not like you said that it has to be stuffy and no fun, but it's good for kids to know how to act when you take them out in public.

And your post reminded me something my Mom ALWAYS used to say about growing up around her Grandmother's very formal dining table. "Children were to be seen, and not heard." Now that, I don't know that I completely agree with.

Off to hit the shower!

Bia said...

Aaaah. The quest for civility. No, it's not a search, it's a quest.

How hard can it be to remember to chew with your mouth closed . . . something we've told our sons a gazillion times.

How hard can it be to keep your elbows off the table?

To cut your chicken without elbowing your brother in the side?

But like Don Quixote, I will not give up. The Quest continues because I dare to dream the impossible!

Wendy said...

I especially related to this post, Lisa. My middle son drives us insane at meal times. I'm hoping that it is merely a phase, but I don't have enough experience to verify that. He is in and out of the chair (which earns the belt to keep him in), rocking against his big brother's chair, talking endlessly without eating a bite, and yes, worms are his favorite things to talk about and eat.