“What’s your most difficult time of day?” I asked Sue and Bob, parents of three children under the age of six. They had requested a conference for advice about table manners.
“Dinner time,” Sue answered without hesitation. “Definitely dinner time. It’s crazy. The kids are up and down. They don’t eat what I’ve fixed. It’s a zoo, and I feel like we’re not doing anything right.”
“Besides eating, what do you hope to accomplish at dinner time?” I asked.
Bob gave me a blank look and then grinned. “I hadn’t thought about it like that. We’re trying to do a lot, aren’t we?” Teaching manners, prayers and thankfulness, trying new foods, fostering family communication and establishing a family ritual of being together were important items for Bob and Sue. No wonder they felt overwhelmed by “table manners.”
My next request was, “Describe your perfect family dinner.”
Sue shook her head. “This is going to sound far-fetched, but it’s like we’re at an elegant restaurant. Soft lights, candles, classical music in the background, pretty linens and dishes, flowers on the table and interesting conversation. Everyone is smiling and says the food is delicious. And I’m not stuck with cleaning up.”
Bob chuckled. “I’m lower maintenance. I’d love to have dinner without raising my voice. If we could have Sue’s dream, I’d say that would be perfect.”
“Now we have the big picture of what you want. Let’s break it into manageable steps and design a six-week action plan,” I told them.
Here is Sue and Bob’s plan. It’s more ambitious than most of us would consider, but I hope you’ll see a parenting tool.
Week One: Set the mood with lighting, music and conversation
Sue and Bob called a family meeting to discuss their desire to change dinner time. They asked Ben, age 5 1/2, Sarah, 4, and Luke, 2 1/2, for things they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about dinner time. The main complaints were not having enough warning to get ready and that it was boring. They decided to dim the lights in the house and play soft music fifteen minutes before dinner was to be ready. This was a cue to get washed up and set the table. On Saturday morning when things were not rushed, Sue and Bob showed the children how to set the table. They moved dishes, silverware and placemats so the children could reach them. Sue and Bob planned to tell a story about their day or childhood.
Week Two: Focus on prayer and thankfulness
Sue put a candle that wouldn’t tip easily near the table and lit it after everyone was seated. The candle became the signal for prayer and stillness. The answering machine kept the phone from interrupting dinner. Sue or Bob blew out the candle to conclude mealtime, which served as a sign for everyone to thank the cook.
Week Three: Flowers, Trying New Food and Not Complaining
Sue purchased five small vases and silk flowers. At family meeting, they made flower arrangements. The vases became part of each place setting and served as a reminder to try each dish without complaining and to be thankful. Sue included raw vegetables with dip at every dinner per the children’s request. After the candle was blown out, the children could fix a peanut butter sandwich if they were still hungry.
Week Four: Learning to Clean-Up
This week, the children were shown how to carry dishes and put them in the dishwasher, practicing with clean dishes. Bob supervised the dishwasher as the children cleared the table. Sue promised to stay calm if a dish broke.
Week Five: Additional Clean-Up
Sue and Bob showed the children how to wipe off the table, sweep under the table and tuck in the chairs. Sue found a child-sized broom and dustpan and cut sponges in half to be the right size for small hands to squeeze dry.
Week Six: At Last!
Dinner time was going so well, Bob and Sue wondered why they had been upset about it. “Everything is not perfect,” Sue confessed. “We give ‘friendly reminders’ and re-teach if someone forgets something. The nights that Bob is out of town are harder.” Bob added, “The kids are great. They know what we expect, and they try hard to do it. It can fall apart, though, if they’re tired or sick. We feel so successful that we’ve started a plan for bath and bed times.”
Even if Sue and Bob’s dinner plans are too elaborate for you, I hope you can use this tool to change challenging situations. To plan change:
- Step back and get the big picture of what’s important to you.
- Make an action plan with family input.
- Share the plan with all family members.
- Be clear about expectations.
- Realize that some steps in your plan may take weeks.
- Have fun as you implement your plan, and
- Make adjustments when something doesn’t work.
You’ll be able to turn screams into dreams.