We are 10 minutes into dinner on a Sunday night. I have YouTube on, but there’s nothing to see; just a Chet Baker record playing kind of low. I’ve been telling Violet, 7, and her brothers Henry, 5, and Charlie, 2, about Baker’s jazz genius and how drugs destroyed him in the end.
It seems pretty heavy for dinner table conversation with kids, but I’m approaching it gently. I’ll ease up at times and point out stuff like, “Ooooh, listen! Right here! Listen to how sad and smooth he sings this part, you guys!”
Somewhere between a mouthful of fish sticks and a gulp of her chocolate milk, my daughter Violet drops her fork and looks up at me.
“Dad?” she says.
Right away I can see her young mind firing up, and I get excited. There’s that little bent lilt in her voice that kids get when they’re onto something, when their curiosity collides with something they’ve just seen or heard.
“Yeah, kiddo?” I ask.
“Do you think that Chet Baker would have lived to be an old happy man playing his trumpet if he hadn’t done drugs and died when he was still almost just a kid like us?”
There is a weird feeling that shoots across my body, and I hear the voice in my head whisper, “It’s GO TIME, Daddy-Oh!”
And right before I answer her bright and shining question, I can’t help but think about how none of this would be going down if we were all still staring at Sponge Bob the way we used to do at dinnertime. We were zombies, blankly gleaming across our dinner plates at a TV that never quit.
Now it seems so obvious that we were doing dinnertime all wrong, but I know we weren’t alone.
TV at dinner: it is what it is, and what it is, is an epidemic.
About three months ago, I had one of my ultra-rare moments of parenting clarity. Hit by the notion that I was perpetuating the all-out destruction of family meals, I had an epiphany.
“No more TV at dinner,” I told my three young ones. “From now on we’ll listen to some cool music. And talk to each other. Like people used to do in the old days. Like fancy people in fancy restaurants do.”
They moaned. They snarled. They told me it was a dumb idea. But then I told them it was going to be cool. And better.
I didn’t really believe it, mind you. I had no idea what it would be like, which is entirely the pathetic reason I decided to create the rule in the first place. Staring at the television over dinner had been our thing since the very beginning of our family. We’d lost a lot of time. We’d thrown away a billion chances at something better.
Enough was enough.
I didn’t say that to the kids, obviously. I just told them the TV was out at mealtime and if they didn’t like that, then ice cream for dessert was out, too.
That got the ball rolling.
That very first evening, after I got everyone situated around our kitchen island and served them up their grub, I slipped over to the TV just like old times. But instead of putting on a cartoon like I always had before, I went to YouTube and put on the brilliant Miles Davis album Cookin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet. It had no video — just a still of the album cover.
Right away the effects were staggering.
First and foremost, I noticed that no one was dumping peas or chicken nuggets all over my kitchen floor as they attempted that tough, youthful task of getting food into their mouths while simultaneously staring at the TV. That alone made it all a massive victory from the start.
Beyond that though, and I’m not stretching the truth here at all, almost instantly we were all involved in dinner conversation. I asked them about their days at school and daycare. They ignored me. I asked them again, this time moving in close and annoying, my eyes wide open, demanding their attention with a bit of Freak Dad.
It worked. They responded. And we were off.
By the time I broke out the ice cream for Violet and Henry and gave Charlie his nightly Popsicle to drip all over himself, we had spent 25 minutes talking about everything from what books my daughter was planning to check out of the library this week to them asking me beautiful questions like:
“Dad, why is Miles Davis named Miles? Is he a car that plays music?”
I was beside myself with joy. And there was no going back.
We fall into little grooves that become habits as parents. Our days are staggeringly difficult at times, with long stretches of thankless work and care often leaving us exhausted by dinnertime. It’s so easy to fall into a routine that allows us to catch our breath whenever possible. And no matter what any uppity mom or dad might preach, the TV can offer that kind of welcome respite to a parent just trying to make it to bedtime in one piece.
I know. I was in that place once not very long ago.
But now that everything has changed around these parts at dinnertime (and lunch too; we still sneak a little bit of TV in at breakfast), I seriously find myself looking forward to getting dinner together every evening. That wasn’t always the case. But nowadays as 6 PM rolls upon us, I know that I’ll soon be chilling with my three favorite foodies. The four of us meeting up in our favorite corner joint, “Dad’s Place,” to enjoy a meal, share stories of our day, and listen to a little Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald.
Life, you see, is often just a matter of how you look at it. And so the way I see it now, every evening we’re like these four social butterflies out on the town.
We’re always chatting away, smiling and laughing over our meals.
We’re always toasting the good life with lemonade and Popsicles.
Which is kind of perfect when you think about it.