I’m a yeller. If my household read like a classic novel, that would probably be my fatal flaw. I don’t particularly enjoy the bubbling over feeling of anger and overwhelm, in fact – I hate it. It is near to my mind on a daily, hourly basis: how to bridle my tongue and my emotions effectively while dealing with small, irrational human beings who depend on me for their every need and possess a PhD double majored in whining and trouble. It’s one of the profound mysteries in life. Because of this, the end-of-a-long-day craze can easily spiral us down into total disaster if I’m not careful.
Being in the trenches of mothering small children – in my case 3 kids born in less than four years (now ages 1, 3, 5) – is very obviously a train-to-crazytown sort of life. (Insert disclaimer here about how it’s not all bad, I really do love it, blah blah.) I have known for a long time that a huge part of the chaos of the day is all centered around the dinner hour, like a perfect storm. That’s when everything comes to a head, and the day just sort of unravels into one giant tangled mess of chaos.
They call it the witching hour, and it if you are not familiar: it is exactly as it sounds. No – scratch that – it’s way worse. If you are not careful, it can be the complete undoing of an otherwise good day. And at the end of an already bad day? Well, let’s just say that those are the days I cry and go to bed early so the day can be over.
Recently, Chris and I decided to seize back control of that space in the day and implement a few specific strategies. We have three particular elements which seem to be working exceptionally well. Rather than letting that part of the day sweep us up onto the express train to crazy, we get our game-faces on, and play the offense by getting meticulously intentional with some small but powerful changes.
First things first: we thought about the peaceful and enjoyable dinners we’ve had in the past. As we’ve been together over the years (together for 14 years, married for 11), we have had a handful of fancy candlelit dinners at a restaurant on special occasions. When we are in those situations, our behavior changes slightly. We are more aware of our actions, more careful in our manner, and more polite.
So, we thought, let’s try an experiment. What if we tried to create that sort of special atmosphere around our family dinner table? So we did, and it worked miracles. Here are the three key elements:
1. Create the atmosphere
When dinner is almost ready, Chris changes whatever music is playing currently to a relaxing classical music station. When dinner is served, we dim the lights, light candles and place them in the center of the table. We eat dinner by candlelight every night, as we all sit down together.
This part is key. It is absolutely incredible how much more peaceful our dinner time has been when we add these small elements. We also hold hands as we sing our grace. There’s something powerful about the physical touch that grounds us and brings us together. We also make a point to ask the kids about their days, and connect on that level, too.
2. Evening tea
We make a pot of tea, usually this kind, and set it in the center of the table. It cools to a kid-friendly temperature while we eat our dinner, and then we all enjoy a cup together after we’re finished eating. Even the toddler absolutely loves his tea. We use real china tea cups (I have a nice thrifted collection of china tea cups) because why not, really? If they break, there are more at the thrift shop. (We believe in giving kids good-quality things so that they learn to care for them with intention.)
It is amazing to me how enthusiastic the kids all are about this nightly ritual. They see the teapot come to the table, and literally jump up and down in excitement. When it’s not there – they insist on getting it. Many nights also see us adding a simple bowl of cut fruit (whatever is in the house, nothing complicated) to share with the tea. It’s a dessert and a bedtime snack all rolled into one, and, of course, eaten by candlelight it’s extra-special.
We have found that by treating them “like grownups” in this small way, they rise to the occasion, and want to act appropriately. They easily learn proper table etiquette and behavior when they are paying attention in this manner. Oh, they still act like little kids, of course, but there is a marked difference in their efforts to be polite and ‘grown-up’.
We have been totally rocking the crockpot dinners lately, which means that we’ve been doing pretty well at getting it on the table right at 5:30pm. Despite this, some nights just go a little haywire for reasons beyond our control.
Although we cut off snacking after 3:30pm, we do allow unrestricted access to carrot sticks in the fridge at any time. We find that sometimes the whining and chaos is due to them being legitimately hungry (for various reasons – like perhaps lunch wasn’t hearty enough, maybe they’re going through a growth spurt, etc.)
When they whine about being hungry half an hour before dinner, they will sometimes eat a huge bowl of raw carrots, but most often they’ll eat one or two and then run off to play happily. We try to keep this as a firm rule so that they always know what to expect, which cuts down immensely on continually whining about it. In our family, raw veggies are always ‘on tap’ to help curb the hunger.
Those are the three main elements that we have incorporated. They have worked absolute wonders in our family dinner hour. It is enjoyable and peaceful (for the most part), and it has restored equilibrium to the end of our days, rather than an out-of-control unravelling.