Yes, I admit it sounds a little strange: my husband Rick put our son Tim in a time-out for singing “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” at dinner last night.
Tim is 13 ½, which means it had been approximately eight years since his last time-out. But beyond that, it’s kind of a strange offense, by most families’ standards.
It’s also somewhat emblematic of our household. Rick and I have fairly stringent guidelines when it comes to rambunctiousness. And we felt that Tim’s insistence on bursting into song after being asked repeatedly to refrain from doing so was nothing if not rambunctious.
Although it was the first time in recent memory that the situation had escalated to a time-out, Rick and I frequently impose restrictions on dinnertime comportment. It’s not just the obvious things that most parents would object to, like eating with fingers instead of silverware or throwing food. It’s matters as seemingly trivial as exchanging inanities.
These are the kinds of moment non-parents simply can’t picture: the speed with which a family dinner involving a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old can devolve into silliness. When we deem a conversational exchange too stupid, we require a change of subject.
This is the part that all the experts in family dynamics and child development never seem to address when they discuss the importance of the family dinner hour. “Families should sit down to a meal together as often as possible,” they all tend to agree. But what about what happens at that meal? Are we wrong to insist that family dinner means an interesting exchange of ideas and not the goofiness that Rick refers to rather colorfully as “flippity-flappity”?
I don’t mean to make us sound like ogres. In general, we’re okay with silliness. But dinnertime is different. I tend to work fairly hard to get dinner ready for all of us, and when we finally sit down, I want to enjoy it with peace and quiet and interesting discussion. It doesn’t need to involve political discourse or scientific theorems, but it has to involve syllables that are real words and a bare minimum of what the fictional heroine Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle calls the “I-Thought-You-Saids.” (“What? Grandma and Grandpa are planning a vacation? I thought you said Grandma and Grandpa were scamming some Haitians!”)
So yes, family dinnertimes are important, but some standards need to apply, and last night, the standard was no boisterous singing of American folk songs. Still, I felt a little guilty when Tim was sent to his room. (“Can Holly come with me?” he asked. “No,” Rick said. “Can the dog come with me?” No again. In truth, it had been so many years that we’d all forgotten the rules of a standard time-out.) My guess is it boisterous singing at the table won’t be a problem again, unless Tim eventually takes up a career in dinner theater. In which case he’s absolutely justified in not giving us any credit whatsoever for his success.