Dinnertime with small children is rarely peaceful, but dinnertime with three boys – ages seven and under – isn’t just “not peaceful.” It’s a three-ring circus on its best days, and a feast of lunacy on its worst. It’s loud and messy and frenetic. It’s exactly like those three illustration-only pages in “Where the Wild Things Are,” after Max decrees, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
Each night at 5:30 our little kitchen is transformed into a bustling hub of activity, with my husband and I taking turns playing chef, wait staff, and busboy. Since not one of my sons can remain still for longer than 30 seconds at a time, we are always redirecting them – like a litter of poorly trained puppies – to sit.
Sit down, don’t stand next to your chair.
Sit back in your seat, not under the table.
Don’t crouch or kneel, sit on your bottom.
Then there are the terrible knock-knock jokes that incite uproarious laughter from siblings. There are accusations that certain people are looking at certain other people in unfavorable ways. There are uneaten vegetables, and requests for dessert in spite of the uneaten vegetables. There are fleeting moments when no one is talking and I open my mouth to tell my husband something but then somebody asks for water or a spoon or ketchup and by the time the item has been retrieved, I can’t remember what I wanted to say.
There are also many, many reiterations from my husband and I to be polite: chew with your mouth closed, ask nicely for what you need, use a napkin, don’t complain about what’s on your plate. There is the frustrating feeling that all our reminders to use some manners (any manners at all, even just one) will forever fall on deaf ears.
But once in a while, there is also a glimmer: a hint of a possibility that all the hard work we put into having civilized meals will eventually pay off. Someone remembers to say “please” before he makes a request. No one slips out of his booster seat to steal an extra roll off the counter. No one shouts “Oh no, not green beans!” when he pulls up his chair.
It’s not the norm, but every now and then, we get through a whole dinner without anyone asking how many peas he has to eat, or why we’re having meatballs instead of chicken, or why his soup has “so much liquid” in it.
One recent night, one of our sons actually complimented the meal in front of him. My middle child – half-sitting, half-crouching in his chair with marinara sauce on his face – looked up from his pasta and shouted, “This is the best dinner ever! Did you make this? Good job, Mommy and Daddy!” My husband and I glowed. We thanked our son for his kind words. We told him we work hard to give that food to him, and that it makes us feel good when he tells us he likes it. He beamed right back at us.
It was a dinnertime miracle.
Later, while we were cleaning up the aftermath around and beneath our kitchen table, I laughed about my son’s unprompted five-star review.
“At least we know they’re listening,” I said. “They may not act on it very often, but at least they’re hearing us when we tell them to be polite.”
“You know, if you go one for three for your entire career in baseball, you end up in the Hall of Fame,” my husband said.
“Baseball players. If they get a hit one out of every three at-bats for their career, they make it into the Hall of Fame.”
I frowned. “That’s not a great average.”
My husband laughed. “It is in baseball.”
That got me thinking: what if I looked at family dinners according to baseball standards? What if I stopped striving for perfection, and tried for one out of three instead?
One dinner out of three that doesn’t end in protests or spilled food or tears. One child out of three who remembers his manners or eats happily without complaint. One plate out of three cleaned right down to the faded melamine character, vegetables and all.
This approach could even apply beyond dinnertime battles, across the whole wide world of parenting. Imagine if you could pat yourself on the back as long as one out of every three trips to the grocery store with a herd of children didn’t end in sweaty embarrassment. If the potty-training toddler made it to the bathroom 33 percent of the time. If the kids could play together without fighting for one hour out of every three (substitute “hour” for “minute” and I’d still be happy).
For a perfectionist like me, this doesn’t quite seem like enough. But even I have to admit it would be more manageable and, more importantly, hugely sanity-saving to adjust my personal expectations this way. To think that I could fail more often than I succeed and still end up in the Parental Hall of Fame is ridiculously uplifting. It automatically erases the pressure to do everything – or, at least, most things – right.
My kids made three messes and I only yelled about two of them? Hall of Fame. I forgot to do laundry two days in a row but then got all the laundry washed, folded, and put away on the third day? Hall of Fame. Served chicken nuggets for lunch on Monday and Wednesday, but homemade organic vegetable quiche on Tuesday? Hall of Fame.
Like so many other things, it’s all about perspective. Aiming for a .366 batting average in parenting is forgiving. It makes it easier to keep getting out of bed every day and trying to do the best I can. On bad days of motherhood—maybe even on the good days, too – I can try for one out of three. I can focus on my one line drive to center field, not my two strikeouts. If can step up to the plate and knock it out of the park just once, I can still be a halfway decent parent.
Better than that – I can make it to the Hall of Fame.