Ringing the Dinner Bell
Turning family dinner into the most cherished part of the day
Illustration by Shutterstock
“I gotta go. It’s time for dinner.”
It’s hard to say how many games of basketball, whiffle ball, street hockey, football or other sporting activity ended with those words when I was a kid. Whether they came out of my mouth or my friend’s, it was understood that there was no arguing about one more basket or out: Being late for dinner was not an option. Coming home late too often might get you grounded or land you some extra chores, like doing the dishes for a week.
Busting through the door was always followed with the question: “What’s for dinner?” There were favorite dinners and meals I hated, but what was on the table was what we ate. I didn’t think much about it then, but I marvel now that during much of my childhood, my mom — a working, single parent — always had dinner on the table. In all the houses in my neighborhood the ritual was the same — families gathered for dinner. Kids did the dishes, cleaned up the kitchen, and then started their homework and got ready for the next day. In the summer, we could go out again for an evening game of flashlight tag or just hanging around with friends, but dinnertime was family time.
We weren’t allowed to have music playing and certainly couldn’t have the TV on during dinner — even if the Bruins or Red Sox were playing. We never ate until everyone was seated, and we never got up until everyone was finished. We talked about our day, finished arguments that needed Mom’s refereeing — usually because my little brother was slacking on his chores, and sticking me and my sister with them — he was an expert at that! As teenagers, we took turns moping about some heartbreak, complaining about some teacher or recalling funny anecdotes from the day. I can’t think of many days we didn’t eat together. It was family time that my mother guarded fiercely.
Fast forward 20 years and you would have seen the same thing in my family with my wife and sons. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision; it was just what we did. We couldn’t imagine it otherwise. Both my wife and I worked when our kids were young, so it was sometimes a scramble to get dinner finished. But we always did and, in our busy lives, it was the most cherished part of the day.
I did my fair bit of refereeing, and helped our sons navigate heartaches, mean teachers, unfair friends and moments of triumph. We found strength in being together, and even during our sons’ teen years, where at times our relationships were strained, we stuck it out and ate together. There were days when dinner might be the only time we saw our older son — and even if he didn’t talk to us, he sat with us.
I once heard someone say that the family “we” is the platform from which the “I” is launched. “We do this ... ” as a family becomes “I stand for this ... ” as a teenager and adult. It’s not easy in today’s busy world to create the moments that make a “we” out of a family’s individuals. As the kids grow up, it becomes even harder to fly in the face of their individual preferences and insist on rituals such as dinnertime. But if a simple plate of spaghetti on a busy day, or a favorite meal from time to time can help give my boys the foundation to say, “I do this because it’s the right thing,” put an apron on me and fire up the stove, because it’s time for dinner.
Whitney MacDonald lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Amy, and works nationally and internationally as an educational consultant. He runs workshops on topics ranging from traditional games to parenting, rites of passage for teens and conflict resolution. Learn more at creatingmen.com.