By Kelly Hines
I’m a stickler for table manners. I am not like the nuns under whose tutelage my mother-in-law was raised; I don’t rap knuckles with rulers or forbid speaking at the table. But I do insist on the common courtesy, elbows off the table brand of table manners that has become increasingly rare among children.
My own kids aren’t perfect, of course. My middle child finds it almost impossible to chew with her mouth closed, and the oldest spends dinnertime pointing it out. My youngest spends most dinners complaining about what we’re eating, spilling things, eating with his hands, or lying down. It’s like dining with a small troupe of trained monkeys. When I finally got them to the point where they leave the table if they absolutely must pass gas, they excuse themselves not to the bathroom, but to the small mudroom immediately adjacent to the kitchen. So, we still see – and sometimes hear – what they’re doing.
“We have a fart room,” I say to my husband. “How did this happen?”
Eating out presents its own challenges. All around us, entire families are on cell phones or iPads or other portable gaming devices. “Don’t you even think about it,” I say to my teenager. And my husband. The two little ones look longingly at the table next to us, where the kids are watching a YouTube video of other kids playing Minecraft.
“Here!” I say, and push two crayons – one red, one blue – across the table. “You will play with these two crayons and like it.” They flip their placemats over and sigh. “I’ll be X’s and you be O’s,” the middle one says.
When I was a child, going out to eat was reserved for special occasions – birthdays, graduations, a new job. We were so enraptured by the experience, we could hardly concentrate on anything else. Were the fish on the wall at Red Lobster real? Did Mom pay extra to have Ronald come to my birthday party at McDonald’s? There’s a buffet – where I can choose the food I want? It was like Disney World and Christmas all wrapped up in one delicious package.
When I was a kid, there weren’t even two crayons to play with. “What do you mean, you need to play with something while you wait on your food?” my mom would have asked, taking a drag from her Vantage cigarette. “You’re lucky you’re even eating, let alone eating out. Don’t you know there are starving children in China?”
The idea of billions of Chinese children starving while I quibbled over a piece of broccoli was enough to make me a charter member of the Clean Plate Club. Even when my mom was going through her experimental phase. Chicken liver pate, anyone?
“Why can’t we just have burgers every night?” my daughter says. Because I like pretend that I feed my family nutritious meals? Because a green bean never killed anyone? “Actually, Mom, Brookeleighe in my 7th period class is, like, totally allergic to green beans.” I wonder what dinner time is like at Brookeleighe’s house. I’d like to think her mom has it worse, as a cosmic punishment for naming her child Brookeleighe.
Maybe I don’t have it so bad after all. They’re eating, and not throwing food, and there is some semblance of order. My oldest remembers to keep her elbows off the table, and the youngest is eating salad without complaint. And my dear, sweet middle child – where is she?
“Where’s Julia?” I ask.
Without looking up from his phone, my husband says without missing a beat – “Fart room.”