Mealtime Madness

Family Matters

Our children (ages 6 and under) see mealtime as a time for being loud. Conversation is virtually impossible as they repeat song verses ad nauseum, make all kinds of noises and generally just create chaos.

Aren't meals supposed to be warm, sharing family times? Don't surveys say that families who eat together benefit from improved communication, cohesiveness and caring? Yes. What those surveys don't talk about, however, is the need for some semblance of peace to permeate the atmosphere. And, as with any activity that includes little people, sometimes peace has to be imposed by the big people.

Your situation touches on a broader parenting question: Should you discipline a child when he's not really misbehaving but only being exuberant? In other words, can you punish a kid for just being a kid? That depends. Any kid conduct, however positive or admirable in one setting, can be completely out of line in another. Would you allow your 4-year-old to whistle “Jesus Loves Me” during the eulogy of his great-aunt's funeral service?

Likewise, the appropriateness of any behavior depends also on its frequency. One “I love you, Mommy” is precious at bedtime. Maybe even several. Stand and listen to 36 variations of that theme while Eve tries to keep you bed-bound with her, and you've moved from precious to manipulative, from warm to weasel. As the saying goes, sometimes a vice is just a virtue taken to extreme.

So, even good and happy kid behavior can be bad and obnoxious. It all depends on the setting and frequency. As parent, you must decide when and where the line is to be drawn. Mealtime, believe it or not, is one such place. In my book Back to the Family, a survey of how good families raised kids, parents frequently smoothed out mealtimes with a few simple rules.

No interrupting or talking over the person speaking, not just with words, but assorted noises, songs, deliberate burps, obnoxious chewing or “guess what I'm eating.” To discourage meal-long kid monologues, time limits can be established; for instance, five minutes per child, which can be an eternity when listening to a 3-year-old's story of a ball caught in a tree. Time limits may vary from child to child and story to story or can be invoked simply by a parent saying, “Okay, its Oral's turn to talk now.”

A hand signal to “lower the volume” is in effect at each meal. Does your hand reach to the floor? No television, radio, computer or maybe even phone is allowed to talk during meals. No sense letting anyone or anything else add to the cacophony.

All exceptions are backed by consequences. For example, ignoring the rules will lead to removal from the table for five minutes. Second offense is 10 minutes (how long is your meal?), loss of dessert or, depending upon the willfulness of the infraction, removal to somewhere else for the rest of the meal. Food can be finished in silence after the family meal.

Are you stifling your children's natural mealtime joyfulness? Not at all. You are putting a lid on natural mealtime anarchy. In essence, you're giving the kids freedom within limits, thus making the meal more digestible for everyone.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a psychologist, author and father of 10. He can be reached at

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