Family Dinner Rituals

A few days ago Cameron announced he was done eating about ten minutes after the meal started.  When the boys were young toddlers, I let them get down from the table as soon as they were finished.  Otherwise they would start throwing peas or blowing bubbles (soon to be tidal waves) in their milk.  When a one-year-old is done, he is done!

But this time I did something I’ve never done before.  I told Cameron that Aidan and I would like him to sit and talk to us while we finished our meal.  Surprisingly, he climbed back into his chair and looked expectantly at me.  Okay, now what mom?

I’ve never been good at starting conversations, even with soon-to-be-three-year-olds, so I tried the dinner table classic:  “Tell me the best part of your day” and “Tell me the worse part of your day.”  It worked! I learned that Cameron loved making popsicles and didn’t like having only one book at nap time.  Aidan also loved making popsicles and didn’t like his tower being knocked down by his brother. Both thought they should have ice cream for dessert, that jumping in the pool is fun until you get water up your nose, that Grammy and Papa had been in Florida for too long (four days . . .), and that putting play-do in your hair is silly.

In the end, Cameron stayed at the table for another twenty minutes.  Along with finishing his carrots and his watermelon, he talked, laughed and had fun with his mom and brother.  I hope he also felt a sense of belonging, of being important enough to be listened to and wanted—not just the dinner table, but in all of our family activities.

I’m not expecting miracles.  Most days I imagine he will be done, when he’s done.  (Or I’ll really wish he’d gotten down . . .) But we were blessed that night because I took a chance at chaos and tried to talk to my kids. Maybe “Best part, worse part” will become a family tradition.  Maybe we’ll find other ways to talk about the things that are important to us.  What matters is that we are trying and succeeding in small steps to make family meal time a special time for everyone—mom, Grammy and Papa, and kids.



My boys are too young to be called home by the dinner bell, so we’ve started a new family ritual in honor of that tradition.  At the beginning of dinner I ring the bell to signal it’s time to eat.  Of course, the boys want to ring the bell, too, so the ritual has quickly evolved into a grace.  Each boy rings the bell then tells one or two things he is thankful for.  Aidan is usually thankful for mixers (the concrete kind) and ice cream. Cameron is thankful for excavators and dump trucks. Occasionally, he is also thankful for French fries.  I am thankful that my sons find joy in simple pleasures and that they love coming to the dinner table.

Aidan rings the bell at Grammy's house.

So far this new ritual has not replaced an older ritual I started when the boys were about 14- months-old.  A friend of mine had taken dinner to a young mother of triplets who was sick.  She put the food on the table, lifted the boys into their highchairs, then stood in stunned silence, tears streaming down her cheek, as all three infants took hands and bowed heads with their parents while the mother thanked God for the food and for the wonderful friend who brought it.  The babies were ten-months-old.

Cameron and Papa take turns with the dinner bell.

I knew right then it was time to start my own family grace ritual—one that could be shared comfortably with any guest at our table no matter their age or religious beliefs.  I settled on the simple act of gratitude.  Our family often takes hands before eating; then each person shares something he is thankful for.  We call it “Saying Our Thank You’s,” and it has become an important part of my sons’ lives.  If I mention I am thankful for something during our meal, two sticky hands shoot out to clasp mine followed by two smiles and another chorus of gratitude for construction equipment.

I am truly thankful indeed.

What family dinner rituals help your children feel like they belong?  Please share at The Dinner Bell.