We have a pretty firm dinner rule at our house: no technology at the table. Since my husband and I work full-time, we don’t eat that many meals with our children. When we do, we want our collective attention to be on the experience of being together, in real life, even if it’s for 15 minutes over frozen waffles in the morning rush. The one exception is when we eat in front of the TV on Sundays. This is our “movie night,” and it’s all about the screen.
There are a few reasons my husband and I pioneered this event a couple of years ago. Our kids were getting to the ages where we thought they deserved more than the pablum of animated “life lessons” that many kids’ networks were dishing out. My partner and I are movie buffs, our formative years being heavily influenced by some of the greatest films ever (though I suppose that’s debatable, depending on how you feel about Star Wars). We wanted to share our love of these classic movies with our kids. Also, in designating a certain time to watch something together as a family, we took the sting out of Sunday nights, when everyone is bummed out about returning to school and work the next day. (Although I often very much look forward to Mondays when I can go be around adults all day in an office after a weekend attending kids’ birthday parties, soccer games, and Girl Scout meetings.)
We wanted to share our love of these classic movies with our kids.
Usually, we program the night with a movie we are excited to show our kids, so they can feel the same joy (hopefully) we did as children when we first watched a film like Young Frankenstein, Close Encounters, or Breaking Away. Sometimes it’s a superhero movie we didn’t get a chance to see when it came out in theaters (read: basically all the superhero movies since our date nights are few and far between). We’ve even watched a film that the kids have already seen (thanks to their grandparents) that my husband and I missed, and the kids have been so excited to get a chance to show us a movie they really liked, too. This can backfire, though, as evidenced by the nap my husband took in the middle of the live action Beauty and the Beast remake.
We try to make food easy to eat without a table, though I’ve learned to just put a plastic tarp down if I want to truly avoid any significant messes. We stick to mostly finger food, or pasta that’s not too saucy. It’s important that the food doesn’t need to be that hot to enjoy, since the kids have a tendency to be distracted by what they’re watching and go for several minutes between bites. The only annoying aspect about our living room picnic is that there is a lot of up-and-down with my husband and I; getting our children more food, fetching napkins, refilling our own plates. I don’t like bringing the food out to the living room and serving from there, because I have a tendency to eat too much of it since it’s right in front of me. So I pay the price by getting up from the couch frequently.
For as much as it’s crucial for me to feel like connected as a family, meal time isn’t always the ideal setting to achieve that.
Eating in front of the TV is also a way of giving ourselves a break. A break from reminding our kids to stay in their seats, not to talk with their mouths full, and to quit antagonizing each other. For as much as it’s crucial for me to feel like connected as a family, meal time isn’t always the ideal setting to achieve that worthwhile goal. Family dinners were big when I was a kid, but they weren’t frequent since my dad worked a lot of nights. If I made my kids sit with us every single night for dinner, I doubt all of us would enjoy it. As it is, we barely eat together during the week. Usually we can spend breakfast — all 15 minutes of it — together, but it’s not the most relaxed time of the day to be with one another, since we’re trying to get out the door to catch the bus. The kids eat before we get home from work on weeknights, and once a week my parents have our kids for dinner.
So that doesn’t leave a lot of family meals throughout the week. But on the flip side, it doesn’t take a lot of family meals to make me realize all the pitfalls of eating with our kids. Other than correcting their mealtime behavior, and listening to them whine about what green thing on their plates they are refusing to eat, we may enjoy some conversation. Understanding that we were never going to be the epitome of a Norman Rockwell painting, I felt better about subtracting one more meal at the table with our kids from our schedule. Because when you are watching a movie, you’re not talking, which means you’re not arguing or whining. But when we're eating in front of the television we're engaging in an activity as a family, and having a meal together. It’s kind of a win-win.
If I made my kids sit with us every single night for dinner, I doubt all of us would enjoy it.
Keeping movie night to once a week also maintains its special status. If we constantly ate in front of the TV, then it would be less about having this shared experience, and more about avoiding conversations with our kids. My partner and I want our children to look back on movie nights as special times. Picnicking as we watch E.T. is a memory I want my children to have when they’re older.
So while we remain adamant about no screens at mealtime, it makes our dinners in front of the TV on Sunday nights all the more delicious. No pressure to ask anyone about their day, or to beg a child to use a fork. Just a solidly good film and the four of us creating the memory of that night. I don’t know if my kids are still going to want to carry on this tradition when they enter their teens and no longer want anything to do with their embarrassing parents, but I can hope that, by cementing this ritual early in their lives, they’ll always choose to join us on the couch on Sunday nights.
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