Back when families had dinner together

By Dan Dunkle | Sep 08, 2017

I hear people say, rather pointedly, "Back when families had dinner together."

We have dinner together often, but not every night, because sometimes Christine and I are working at the paper.

And now Wesley is a working man at 16, in his collar shirt and sharp slacks with a nametag to make it official. So half the time he's at his job, and his mother has been moaning about the little 4-pound-6-ounce peanut we brought home from the hospital.

So sometimes it's just the parents and Samantha at dinner. Sami is 11, so I am not allowed to put her to work in any lucrative business.

The table is this big old table that we can make even bigger for Thanksgiving, but even on normal nights we don't need the whole thing. Most of the time, someone's bookbag and school papers are shoved way down at the other end.

Wesley likes to show me funny "memes" and videos on his cellphone while we eat. Last night it was a gorilla in a bathtub with one of the songs from "Flashdance" playing. Both children and my wife try as much as possible to keep their eyes glued to tablets or cellphones. This overtook us somewhere along the way, and I don't even really know how it happened.

Christine uses dinner as a chance to transact specific business. For several weeks, she grilled Wesley about his high school schedule. Which classes would he take? Who was he going to be in band with? What activities at school would he do? What kind of lunch would he have... Until one night I said, "I don't want to talk about Wesley's schedule anymore."

Now that school has started, there's paperwork to fill out. Samantha is pretty sure we've dropped the ball on the permission forms for many field trips, even though it's the first we've heard about them. The ball of "nag" has rolled downhill from her teacher to her to us.

For my part, I have enacted specific rules for the table. Rule one is that the area above my plate is my sovereign air space. Any invasion of that space will be taken as an act of war and subjected to retaliation.

No one is to eat while standing, hover around my shoulder, or dance around during the meal. Either sit in your seat or go away!

If I pass something on once I have finished loading my plate, the person next to me has approximately two seconds to take it from my hand. Failure to do so is also an act of war.

Any vegetable lacking a coating of butter, ketchup or gravy may be thrown at others, and weird leaves or discolored fries may be pushed toward other people's plates.

Call me old-fashioned, but I grew up in a time when families had dinner together.

Samantha is not good at dinner.

For several nights now, she has been putting her feet up on her seat, which brings her knees to her chin. This is what she considers a comfortable eating position. Sometimes she drapes her legs across Christine's lap. If she were sitting next to me, this would violate another of my rules, which is that I don't like to be touched while eating.

As her pasta hits the carpet, tensions rise.

"Maybe if you were sitting like a human, that wouldn't happen!"

Samantha does not appreciate constructive criticism. She also does not appreciate our cooking. "I don't like chili ... meatloaf ... mashed potatoes ..." she says. Casseroles are out. She wants nothing mixed.

I have often argued unsuccessfully that if the children do not want to eat what we are making, that is their problem. That was the policy when I was growing up.

But Sami is allowed to have noodles or plain spaghetti or a little salad of her own.

When I was growing up, my parents were at home at five every night, and we had dinner while watching the evening news. Dad ranted and raved about politics and tried to remember what Paul Harvey said on the radio that day.

Mom probably bugged me about my school schedule, though I don't remember much about that. Back then, schools could figure out basic schedules without resorting to blue days and gold days and all that nonsense. I think they were even allowed to get you killed on a field trip without a permission form, but maybe I've just forgotten.

Dad used to complain about work. He called his boss a clown so often that when I was a little kid I used to picture his boss as a clown, only without the makeup. He was one of those hobo clowns with curly tufts of graying hair on the sides of his head and giant worn-out shoes.

Families tend to be busier these days, and not everyone has a nine-to-five schedule. People eat on the go, so there are not as many family meals. Maybe you can only sit down with your kids once a week.

Remember though, it's not really about dinner.

The really important thing is sorting out that schedule.

Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and two cats. Email him your questions and memories of the Rockland area at or snail mail: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Sep 12, 2017 12:18

The great memories of growing up are family meal times. Had that when raising my own kids. Caught up on family news, interests and challenges. Times have changed. Maybe that is why we tend to treat each other so coarsely. We also went to church together and Sundays were always family time.
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Posted by: Dan Dunkle | Sep 11, 2017 09:53

You know, I should look up the old rules for family dinners and see if we could conform to them for one night a week. I don't remember specific rules when I was growing up other than, you eat what Mom gives you, which was never a problem and you have to be quiet if something really big was being reported in the news. I didn't have brothers and sisters, which I see now is a big difference. If you have multiple kids, then you have to deal with people fighting and arguing at the table or laughing and goofing around when they are getting along. I'm still the biggest behavior issue most nights though.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Sep 10, 2017 16:26

Well, I remember as a child, sitting closely to the radio, a big wooden thing, and listening to President Roosevelt talk to the nation.  Times sure change. We also all sat down at one big table and had family talks when not eating. We could not talk with our mouths full. But yes as your family grew up without protocol, so did my children. Helter skelter quick meals before games and ball practice or gymnast rehearsal-practice. But still memories were formed and laughter prevailed. Just different. Thanks for sharing yours with me Dan.

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