Sometimes I get into arguments with people about whether housewifery is drudgery. It’s funny to me, because it seems obvious that just about every job has a drudge aspect. I suppose that even a top executive sometimes does nothing more exciting than rearrange the paper clips.
Once, in a gathering of friends, one person was really badgering me about this. He kept saying, “Your life is cleaning bathrooms — just drudgery! There is nothing redeeming about that job!”
Since the bathrooms need to be cleaned, and slavery doesn’t seem to be the answer, I don’t find it a big deal. But I was interested to know what he thought would be a job without drudgery.
“For instance, what do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I’m an accountant.”
After the riotous laughter in the room died down, it was generally acknowledged that I had won that round.
My point here is that everything we do has a goal, and if we keep that goal in mind, difficult chores and even drudgery, rather than looming large and overtaking our consciousness to the point that we can’t function, resume their true proportions.
Preparing food, cleaning the house, folding laundry, getting to appointments — all these things can be handled if we’re moderately competent at them (because nothing is worse than boring stuff we have to do but are not good at) and if we’re doing them for a greater purpose.
A day is our portion of time. In a day, we have our goal and we have our working towards the goal. The working sometimes is drudgery, I admit that. The goal — well, the goal is being together, and that means — dinner!
So if right now you are getting the idea of competence, and you are a little afraid about dinner, because the little rascals are outnumbering you around the table, here are some strategies to help you.
I call them strategies, but don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not that they are techniques. We’re not trying to manipulate anyone.
Authority is the key. Just be confident in your God-given authority. Together, you can guide and form your family to be what you want it to be — taking into consideration, of course, the personalities of everyone involved. That last part — about personalities — is where all the surprises come in, but fortunately they are good surprises — ones that make us grow!
The following strategies, then, are tools for competence in forming interpersonal relationship skills and managing interactions — also known as making a family! This post is intended for when the children are babies on up to about fourteen or so.
Investing in these strategies now, when you seem so very helpless against that combination of their sheer numbers and your lack of experience, will pay off great dividends in the future. You just have to have trust that your children really don’t know anything different from what you tell them and demand of them (which is why you have to be careful of the TV they watch, lest they sense that there is another way other than yours!). Always remember: For a long time, you have them where you want them. If you served them dinner of beans in a trough, garnished with a couple of dead dogs (not mine, Fawlty Towers), they would think that was normal.
See how much better you feel already?
1. They don’t have to sit with you for very long.
Managed expectations are huge in this whole “forming a family” thing. If the children help get the table ready, say grace with you, and are expected to sit for just ten or fifteen minutes, it will be easier to get them to behave. Remember, eating dinner together is about you and your husband sharing your meal and your conversation with each other. Eating with you is a privilege. It’s not about the children being there for every second of it, with the focus on them exclusively. If you’re enjoying them, fine. If not, dismiss them before they make you cry.
Teach them to ask to be excused if they are getting wiggly; ask them if they would like to be excused if you are about to lose your mind. The usual expectation is that the youngest will not last as long as the eldest, but sometimes the latter can be called upon to watch the former while you just relax over your meal with Dad. Or you can use your wiley tactics to clear the room of all but the one child you really want to talk to/correct/get to the bottom of what’s bugging him.
When a child is excused, he can take his own place setting away, as well as returning for another item. At the minimum, he knows that he is on call for clearing/cleaning up purposes later on if needed. (We will talk about cleaning up the kitchen in another post.)
It doesn’t hurt to give everyone a pep talk before dinner about behavior. Be clear on what you want. “We’re going to sit quietly, eat quietly, and enjoy each other. Or else.”
If you know that it doesn’t have to be for long, you can refrain from too much correction during the meal. Remember, the other meals are the time to practice manners and behavior. At dinner, let your husband correct the children and be sure to back him up. You can always discuss your approach (and differences thereof) another time. If he’s too tired for discipline, then you do it, but he has to back you up.
2. Everyone has to be polite.
Do go back and read this post about rudeness. Most of your problems over the food will disappear if you demand courtesy.*
If Dad is willing to give swift justice in the form of banishment or a spank when rudeness rears its ugly head, there will be no issues on this score. For instance, who would ever say, “This looks gross?” Suppose the child had made the dinner? Wouldn’t he be offended if we said that to him? Ask him.
At our table we talk quite a bit about the food, and I would say that the excellence of my homemade pizza is due entirely to decades of intensive critiques of my efforts. But the norm is to be grateful to and supportive of the cook. For years my husband raved over each and every meal I served. That really set the tone, you know?
Parents, be polite to each other. Never talk to each other as if you are one of the kids. Fathers, talk to your wife with a loving tone. Mothers, don’t continually interrupt your husband to attend to/correct/admonish a child. Make the child wait until your husband has finished his sentence. It won’t hurt him and it will show your husband that you respect him. Fathers, notice that she is trying to concentrate on you and deal with the little trouble-maker yourself.
Phil had a boss (Ed Fuelner of the Heritage Foundation) about whose leadership he still recounts anecdotes. Ed knows how to build up around him a group of loyal, intelligent people who are willing to work energetically. One thing Ed would do in a meeting that Phil particularly appreciated was to remind everyone to pay attention with this phrase: “One meeting!” That man did not suffer side conversations lightly.
At home, Phil would often pull everyone together by saying, “One conversation!” Let me tell you all the reasons why this is on my top 10 list of great things my husband does to make our family… well, my kind of family.
First, it’s just survival. The din would be too much without this rule.
Second, it makes it possible for conversation to occur in a reasonable, civilized way. If you allow multiple conversations, things quickly descend into multiple fights. With hitting.
Third, it develops the skill of listening; a skill more in demand than supply. Listening is a habit. Habits are formed in the home, usually at the dinner table.
Fourth, where there is a conversational free-for-all, the dominant personalities end up only talking to each other. Less assertive family members stay mute or, in a truly terrible development, pick off other non-alphas for side discussions, leading to that worst of social offenders, the picker-offer — you know, the person who can’t join a general discussion at a party, but insists on engaging you, sotto voce, one-on-one, often using body language to turn you away from what you really want to attend to. These party poopers are bred in families who don’t have the one-conversation rule. They are compensating, not very well, for never having been trained in the art of discussion with multiple people, and very often they are from larger families! But ones without a strong orchestrater of the conversation.
Fifth, the good leader has good awareness about the less dominant types and includes them, giving them their chance to speak. (That awareness can be facilitated by your little sign to him: “So-and-so has something to say….”)
Often, dominance correlates with age. With Phil’s (and Ed’s) technique, the youngest (or somehow weakest) child, having indicated a desire to say something, can’t be drowned out or shouted down. He has his say. He has the floor. Sometimes he doesn’t indicate or in fact the opposite — shows real reluctance –that he wants to join in. All the more reason for the alert parent to draw him out.
Everyone listens respectfully, eschewing, perforce, the destructive solution of saying something aside, to his neighbor. None of that! Thus, even the shyest person at the table has a chance, and receives encouragement to take it. Little by little, he learns to be bolder. He waits for his opportunity. He stores up his sentences, knowing and trusting that he will be attended to. You know, it’s quite difficult to have mustered up the courage to speak, only to become aware that others are whispering or otherwise not paying attention. Nowhere else in our utilitarian world will he be given the chance to run with the big boys, as it were, but without the danger. That is what being a family is — a safe place to be yourself — to be loved for who you are, not what you can contribute.
The one-conversation rule facilitates that glorious characteristic of the family.
4. Children can be asked to stop talking.
Here is a strategy I would like to print up on a card and hand to ladies in the dress shop and gents in the food line at the game.
You can tell your child to stop talking.
If you are concentrating on what blouse goes with what skirt, which do you think is better: To let your child babble on, getting louder and louder, “Mommy, look at this toy! Mommy, can I have this truck? Mommy, MOMMY!!!” Or to say, “I will talk to you in a bit, but now I have to concentrate. Please be quiet.”
At the dinner table, discover the wonderful, peaceful, amazing world of occasionally silent children. If your family is anything like ours, most of the time the children will be brimming with the day’s news, the latest argument, the entire plot-line of the book they are reading, and, as a friend recently reminded me, the “what-ifs” — a mode of discussion that turns any situation, no matter how mundane, into a flight of hypothetical fantasy with no exit strategy.
That’s all great, and it’s what makes time with them fun (as long as there is one conversation and everyone takes a turn listening as well). It’s also what convinces your children that you really are interested in them. If you don’t listen to the entire catalog of the doings of Calvin and Hobbes when your child is ten, don’t expect to hear about his deepest thoughts when he is sixteen.
But keep in mind that the greatest gift you can give your kids is your love for each other, husband and wife. This love is developed, among other places, at the dinner table, and you need to be able to talk to each other.
You also need to be able to respond to what the children have said and maybe even offer a few ideas, anecdotes, or plot summaries of your own.
What holds you back is that you can’t imagine saying to a group of friends, “I am going to ask you all to be quiet now. Mr. Lawler and I need to talk.” What you are forgetting is that, unlike your relationship with your friends, you have authority over your children (who are your friends, but also your “subjects,” and I mean that in a very royal yet loving way, first and foremost).
So what would be fairly shocking to your friends is not only appropriate with your children, it is necessary — and I am begging you to employ this strategy, for the love of all that is peaceful.
5. “Not of general interest.”
Did you ever read Cheaper by the Dozen? Or maybe it’s in Belles on Their Toes…. In any case, Mr. Gilbreth, undoubtedly one of the livelier and more eccentric heads of household you will ever read about, would keep his many children from hijacking the conversation by bellowing, “Not of general interest!”
In our house, where the conversation can quickly descend into the minutiae of details as various as the distinction between lawn and voile cottons or the relative merits of gun cleaning methods, but most of all for the latest adventures of imaginary Lego people, this phrase comes in handy. It’s an escape hatch for the truly desperate. Don’t overuse it, but don’t overlook it either.
6. Be understanding of the younger ones.
It’s really hard to sit still if you are young and everyone is talking about whether the value-added tax constitutes an opportunity for reform or merely more confiscation of our hard-earned cash. Yawn. Let them go play. They can put the milk away on their way out.
7. Younger ones are low on the totem pole.
It’s important not to let everything always swirl around the youngest, most demanding (because least well behaved) child. We focused on you all day with your endless demands. Dinner is time for mother and father to catch up with each other and the older kids. Thus we provide an incentive to good behavior. If all the attention is on them, their bad behavior is its own reward. Later, we’ll talk about how the older ones fall off their pedestal and the attention goes to the youngest, who have become the age that the eldest were when they were this age. But for now, concentrate on the older ones.
This is all for now.
Mostly, #3, one conversation.
Everything will be revealed if we cleave to this rule. Suddenly we will be struck by how rude, unkempt, dirty, and squirmy our children are, because we will be listening to some sort of narrative about a cowboy on a space ship and really, there won’t be much else to think about.
But after a while, really and truly, hang in there, because we will also notice how genuinely funny and smart and thoughtful they are, and once their faces are wiped, how very good it is to be with them!
*I know a bunch of you are going to ask me about picky eaters. Hang tight, we’ll get there!