I love scenes in TV shows where families chat around the dinner table. Yet I believe all the happy banter and controlled chaos is pure fantasy wrapped up in cinematic device.
Let’s face it the family dinner is an archaic ritual that’s almost dead and buried. In fact it exists almost entirely in fantasyland.
Society keeps trying to keep the dying institution. Common wisdom and consensus states that it’s important to have ‘family dinners’. They are presumed to be the cornerstone of good worthy lives; politicians often brag they learnt to argue around the table and parenting experts solemnly lecture us about the importance of such ‘together time’. This article even warns that families who eat together are more likely to have teenagers who will do better academically and won’t smoke, drink and do drugs.
Really? I don't think Pat (Bradley Cooper) was struggling with mental illness in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ because he ate Jackie Weaver’s crabby cakes in front of the Eagles game and not at the family dinner table.
This stuff drives me spare. Because, really who lives like the Waltons anymore?
My kids usually scoff their dinner up at the kitchen bench. We only have two stools so I stand opposite them and we chat. Briefly. Admittedly I’m often listening to the radio and grabbing a quick turn of the I-pad they’ve had to discard to digest.
After reading our kids stories and then putting them back into bed after they’ve slunk back up the hall endless times, we flop on the couch and balance a stir-fry on our lap while watching the latest TV drama or box set. There’s a quick chat while we find the episode and fast-forward all the ads. Then it’s munch and view.
When I briefly flirt with the ‘should do dinner’ brigade and insist we sit up together it rarely works. My son gags if he has to sit near vegetables. My daughter slouches down under the stained tablecloth feeding the dog that is begging beneath the table.
I know we are not alone.
People are just too busy and too plugged into their technology to pay homage to this ancient rite. And for those who tut-tut ‘this didn’t happen in my day’ should acknowledge the family meal hasn’t just gone out of style just in this generation. I grew up eating chops, peas and mash potatoes at the kitchen bench. My mum ate with dad when he got home later (I suspect in front of ‘The Two Ronnies’). On those rare occasions we tried to have a dinner together my mother would fold her hands and prop them under her chin awaiting witty anecdotes and early signs of genius. We’d fight over who would be closer to the heater. She’d sigh and give up until she again forgot how tiresome the right way of doing things could actually be.
We all think we should be doing dinner together, but why? Anyone with a child knows if you sit down, make direct eye contact and grill them with “how was your day” they roll their eyes or go blank. The best conversations you have with kids are when they don’t feel it’s an inquisition – when they’re in the car and they aren’t looking at you, or while you're all walking the dog and laughing about the shape of the poo you are fighting about picking up. That's when they open up and say something like ‘there’s a girl who is totally my type, but my friend loves her too so we are going to take turns to marry her, one year on one year off.” Or when they stop jumping on the trampoline to yell over at you at the clothesline “how do we know what happens when we die and if there is a God how can he control of us? We are not puppets”.
I’ve experienced more insight, connection, depth and development of argument with my kids on car rides than at a table where we are forced to affect affection and togetherness. I’ve experienced more true feelings and love during bedtime cuddles than over a roasted dead animal sacrificed to an archaic ritual of yesteryear. More generosity of spirit and laughter come from doing a family dance routine than at a stiff dinner.
In fact I would argue, the modern family dinner involving watching The Voice while eating chicken nuggets is highly useful in developing ideas and insight. Discussing contestants during the ad breaks can lead to conversations about dreams, aspirations, body image, sadness and loss.
Family dinners are one of those things that we feel the pressure to do but rarely think it's a good idea anyway. MasterChef is all very well and good but the ritual is all about the making not the eating. Besides I know many parents who have quit family dinners because of the show – their kids starting to taste and rate the food and even criticizing the plating up.
I’m not completely against family dinners. We try to go out to pizza or sit down together once a week (or two). If kids think it’s an occasion they’ll sit up, chat animatedly; contribute to the conversation and pretty much do anything for a gelato at the end. The once a week treat gives the night a sense of ceremony. I especially love it if the dinner is in our local square and they can run around while we finish our wine and pay the bill. I acknowledge it can be bonding and can help develop the art of conversation.
I love Christmas and birthday dinners because I remember them as the rare occasions we’d all be together. If dinners are rituals they inspire respect, if they are set up artificially because it’s the proper thing to do they become chores.
Besides, the main reason the family dinner is so used in movies is because it’s a perfect illustration of the dysfunction peculiar to that group. A dinner is where family dynamics are on display. Dinner is where disaster happens; where repressed anger and regret can be unleashed like the cork that broke the urn of grandma’s ashes in ‘Meet the Parents’ or the asparagus plate smashed by Kevin Spacey in ‘American Beauty’. My brothers used to joke that if a boyfriend of mine could make it through dinner with us he was a stayer. They’d mercilessly pick on anyone I bought home, push us all to release bad blood and bring up terrible family histories. I confess a boyfriend once dropped me only twenty minutes after he was carved up as the sacrificial lamb.
So if you worry about the decline of the family dinner, don’t. Just make sure you have a couch that’s easy to clean and let it go the way of the dinosaurs.