Cow bells are especially useful in the country. Not only do they warn of oncoming bovines, but they can summon the family from far and wide to dinner. Friends of mine hang one prominently by their back door.
The urban counterpart to the cow bell is that image of Mom leaning out the door and yelling, “Dinner!” to her various children scattered around the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, that seems like a throwback to a bygone era. In our busy lives, many of us have abandoned eating home-cooked meals together. Grocery stores and fast food outlets have freed us from this time honoured tradition, so that we can grab dinner on the run, heating up a frozen Mexican enchilada, or even gourmet Indian Butter Chicken, as we dash out the door to another meeting, another lesson, another midnight shift.
Not too many June Cleavers remain. But let’s remember that it wasn’t just the perfectly coiffed June who organized these family rituals. Almost every family, tight sweatered or not, once enjoyed this tradition. In the days when buying dinner out far exceeded most family budgets, people cooked from scratch. And then they sat down together, passed the potatoes, and dug in.
Television was the first thing that killed family dinners. Instead of talking, people started watching. And soon conversation died. Once we gave up on the benefits of talking together, little was left. When frozen foods came on the market, home cooking died, too. And soon our schedules became so haphazard that herding everyone together was a struggle.
I wonder, though, how many of us have ever calculated the cost? Most of my generation grew up eating dinner with our families. We learned certain skills that we now take for granted. But many of those skills our children will not learn, because they no longer have the opportunity to learn them.
Take, for instance, the idea of “waiting until dinner” to eat. When 4:30 hit and I was hungry for a cookie, my mother wouldn’t let me indulge because dinner would be served in 45 minutes, and it was out of the question to ruin one’s dinner. If dinner is not going to be served, though, but instead can just be heated up on a whim, children eat whenever they want. No longer do they have to train their appetites to wait. If their bodies want it, they get it. Does this have repercussions in areas other than eating?
And what about the idea of taking one’s turn? Sitting with six people around the table meant that you couldn’t all grab the mashed potatoes at the same time. You had to decide to pass all to the right, or all to the left, and you had to wait until they arrived, unless you were smart enough to set the table yourself and position the potatoes right in front of your own plate. Sharing and waiting one’s turn is almost as outdated now as June Cleaver. As long as you’re the one standing by the microwave, the food’s all yours.
Conversation skills are also eroding. At the dinner table you have to wait your turn to speak, and you have to listen to others. Take away the dinner table, and children’s main conversations occur with friends on the phone, online, or on the playground. The rules of etiquette our grandmothers championed are sadly lacking there.
Without family dinners children don’t learn not to burp at the table, or to keep one’s bottom firmly in one’s seat, or not to interrupt each other. They don’t have to learn how to keep an uninteresting conversation going, how to relate to a sullen sibling, or how to describe what happened in school. As a child I had to ask to be excused; I couldn’t just leave when I wanted to, much as I may have desired to escape during those long Christmas dinners when my grandfather waxed on about the latest Matlock episode. And it did me good.
Family dinners aren’t just about food. They’re about family; they’re about life; they’re about civil society. We’re throwing something far too precious away for the lure of the tube, or the beckoning of the drive thru. I think we need more cow bell.