Both kids were pretending to be arthritic Italian octogenarian cardinals, hobbling in circles around the kitchen and shouting at each other in fake Latin.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of family dinner hour that you read about in parenting magazines.
But did it count anyway? That’s what I’m beginning to wonder. For years, the importance of sitting down as a family to dinner has been considered virtually incontestable, and articles about parenting have even made recommendations about conversation cues and icebreaker games to facilitate beneficial family conversation.
Instead, my kids were acting out what they imagined it might look like if the next Pope were chosen not through a secret conclave but through a giant game of Musical Chairs. Hence the hobbling around yelling imaginary Latin phrases in equally made-up Italian accents.
Worse still, Tim, having not played Musical Chairs in about ten years, had inadvertently reversed the rules. He was thinking that the winner was the one who didn’t find a chair, rather than the last one standing who did. So his imaginary octogenarian Italian cardinal kept deliberately failing to find a seat when the imaginary music stopped. Until I realized he was misremembering the rules, I thought he had a remarkably insightful perspective on the situation, imagining that a cardinal might deliberately throw the game because being Pope would just be too much of a burden for anyone to take on if they could avoid it.
But no, he had just forgotten the rules.
When dinner hour dissipates into this kind of slapstick silliness, as it often does, I wonder whether it even counts as a family dinner. Are we actually getting the vaunted benefits of sitting down to a meal together as a family if we are neither reviewing current international events nor playing the “What was the best part of your day” game? Sometimes we have intelligent conversations, but other times Holly describes arcane foursquare rules. And sometimes, like last night, the kids act out something bizarre like popes playing Musical Chairs, or at the point when they are supposed to be clearing the table, Tim slings Holly over his shoulder and carries her around the kitchen like a Viking training for a wife-tossing competition.
Fortunately, New York Times writer Bruce Feiler’s new book about family life also contests the importance of family dinners. Feiler concedes that some families – like mine, and apparently like his – are sometimes just too worn out at the end of the day for the kind of dinnertime conversation that expands everyone’s thinking. He points out that there are other times of day and opportunities that can stand in for dinner hour. Family breakfast. Family laundry sessions. Family late-afternoon snacktime. This winter, for us, it could be family gather-by-the-front-window-to-watch-the-plow-driver-try-to-make-it-up-the-driveway time.
So I’m not sure whether I should take credit for the frequency with which we all sit down to eat together or not. On nights like this one when silliness prevails, it doesn’t seem all that cerebrally nourishing. But then I remind myself that anything can be eventually turned into a teaching moment. “It’s a good idea, but the popes don’t choose a successor by Musical Chairs,” I explain quickly before the kids move on to something else. “They hold a secret conclave and then vote.”
There. Useful lesson imparted. “Oh, and also, you win Musical Chairs by being the last one in, not the first one out,” I tell Tim. Second useful lesson imparted. Okay then, this should qualify as an educational and mentally nourishing family dinner. Even if the most significant lesson learned may have been how to play Musical Chairs. And why cardinals don’t, in fact, probably need to know that.