The Thinking 

The Best of Dining Companions

August 17, 2012


MY parents did something when I was young that would be unthinkable to today’s hovering, safety-conscious parents. My two younger twin sisters ate dinner in the kitchen by themselves while we — my parents and their other five children — ate in the dining room.

The reason for this arrangment was practical. My mother was protective of the dining room carpet. When something spilled on the carpet, she would fling herself on the floor and shout out, “If there’s one thing that doesn’t come out of the carpet, it’s (tomato sauce or milk or mashed potatoes or whatever else had been spilled at that moment)!” This was a sort of battle cry, a call for some to get a bowl of water and towels quick and for others to stand aside and pray for their lives. She would start furiously blotting with damp towels. Poor woman. Keeping food off the carpet was as impossible as keeping snow off the plains of Siberia. Imagine how many dribbles, drops, crushed crumbs and spills there were with seven children.

My sisters were banished to the kitchen — but only when they were toddlers. Like all very young children, they dropped half of what they were served on the floor. They didn’t have much to talk about back there in the kitchen — toddlers are sporadic conversationalists — and so they often fell asleep, as in the above photo. They look as if they’re inmates in some juvenile detention center for incorrigible two-year-olds.

The carpet ended up a mess anyway.


—– Comments —–

Terry Morris writes:

Looks like the daily scene from my own kitchen.

Today’s parents take extreme measures to “child proof” their homes. This has never made sense to me from a father’s point of view. While I suppose these gadgets afford a certain level of protection to the child, in my own home the costs would far outwweigh the benefits. What better way to enlighten, correct, form and fit a small child than to allow him the opportunity to roam about and explore when he thinks no one is paying attention?

 A reader writes:

What a relief it is to read about unsupervised toddlers eating at the kitchen table! At times, after observing the parents at the playgrounds or parks, I feel like I am somehow neglecting my toddler and baby. I usually sit down and read a good book while I let my children a (two and half yr old and a one yr old) run around and entertain themselves. My 1 year old usually tags along her older sister and learns the ropes. I’ve observed other parents who just don’t sit down and relax. They follow their child around catering to their every whimper, making sure they don’t fall or slip or go down the slide head first, heaven forbid! All this hovering doesn’t seem to help much either. Both parent and child seem to be frustrated and wrought with anxiety. I think to myself how absolutely tiring! How can they do that all day long? I suppose they don’t, they must outsource “parenting” to a nanny or daycare. I encourage my children to go play and have fun without me right at their side. However, they know that if they really need me, I am available, not just for a few hours out of the day on my time “off” but at anytime.

Thank you for writing this blog. I find myself coming back to it again and again for support and bits of domestic wisdom that the world seems to have forgotten.

Laura writes:

Thank you.

What you say is so true. The less time people spend with children, the more work children are.

Zach Cochran writes from Seattle:

Loved the picture of your sisters in the kitchen. We’ve got five now, ages eight, six, four, two and seven months. Our kitchen floor is something like a collision between a vegetable truck and an oatmeal tanker (I don’t know, I imagine you could fill a tanker with oatmeal). It’s nice to know we’re not alone in this; there are moments when I just hold my head in my hands and laugh at the latest appalling and imaginative mess. Thank goodness for the hardwood floors!

Mr. Morris writes:

Years ago — in the early nineties as I recall — I watched a TVspecial about the Russsian day care system and its unmatched efficiency.

Toddlers were placed in a circular playpen , the diameter of which had been carefully pre-determined by the state so as to ensure that the pen’s radius was shorter than the average woman’s reach.

As I recall three nurses, clad in white nursing attire, were stationed at equal intervals around the perimeter of the pen to prevent the possibility that any child could ever get outside their collective reach. The nurses stations were equipped with everything necessary to care for toddlers.

My impression of this elaborate system was, in short, that this would be a highly efficient and effective means of enslaving an entire people. I scoffed at the notion that such a system of nurturing and developing the character of a cradle-to-grave slave would ever be adopted in our beloved country. But I was young and fairly naive at the time.

Robin writes:

What a fabulous photograph!

Today, your mother would be guilted by the mainstream media into believing that she was involved in damaging, lifelong, emotional neglect by failing to have “family dinners” at least three times a week, around the same table. Never mind that she had likely spent twenty-four hours a day with her twins and five other children. Quality time, anyone? [Laura writes: I do think a lack of family dinners can cause lifelong damage. In this case, these were still family dinners because the twins were within earshot.]

My mind wanders to a time recently when I was perusing child care advertisements locally – don’t ask me what possessed me, other than the fact that I am a part-time child care giver and was interested in my “competition,” average rates of pay, etc.

At one point, I came upon a site that revealed violations to the State’s codes for conduct and inspection points for child care centers or in-home day cares. Imagine my shock when I saw that one woman, a housewife who cares for less than six children in her own home during the week, was actually cited because a child fell asleep on…

…the carpet!!!

According the The State, a child who falls asleep on the carpet is in danger of acquiring some kind of wretched, life-threatening pathogen from said carpet, and should only be “placed” by the caregiver on a sanitized, bleached, Lysol-laden “mat.” Wow.

At this point I decided I will never, ever seek “licensure” from the State to care for other people’s children in my home. It would cease to be my own children’s home.

Kristor writes:

Fantastic photo of your sisters. I note that your mother had an industrial strength kitchen – check out the tile wainscoting. Makes it easier to hose down the room.

I have always thought that a really practical kitchen would have such wainscoting, together with a concrete slab floor that sloped gently to a drain set just below the sink. Ditto for the laundry room and the bathrooms.

Laura writes:

That tile was hideous.

Your ideas are practical, but I’m not sure most people want a kitchen that has all the appurtenances of a meat factory. : – )

Hurricane Betsy writes:

It looks like those children, your siblings, cried themselves to sleep for being kept separate. Hearing the din in the dining room, they wanted to be there to experience the warmth and company. Why, they hardly even touched their food. They just gave up. Older children don’t mind being together at their own little table near the adults and teens, such as the arrangement made at gatherings or with large families. They usually love it, yet the adult can still supervise and these children don’t feel excluded.

If I had a beloved carpet in my dining room and a whole bunch of young children, the logical thing to do is either remove the carpet (too much work, mind you); or put an inexpensive, large mat on top of the area that would receive spillage; or maybe a large piece of plastic would do. Indeed, people with little children do this all the time.

Laura writes:

It’s always better to have everyone in the same room, but no, my sisters didn’t cry themselves to sleep. We could hear them in the dining room, which was just a few steps away.

What amazes me is how well-behaved they were. They didn’t try to climb out of their chairs or throw food or whine.  Look at their bibs. They’re perfectly intact.

Tracie Craig writes:

I love this picture of your sisters!

But is that a salt shaker next to the twin on the right? I find that absolutely hilarious … that she is too young to eat in the carpeted dining room, but somehow knows how to properly salt her food! : – )

Laura writes:

Thank you.

No, that is not a salt shaker, or at least I’m almost certain it is not. I believe it is one of those small sound toys with holes in it that you shake and it makes a moo-ing sound.

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