The romantic, magazine-fetishized notion of a holiday meal usually includes several generations of a family sitting together in one endlessly long table. The table is carefully effortless looking, just so — aglow with candles, swathed in autumnal colors, and set with matchy-matchy everything. Elements of nature are incorporated — gourds, leaves, driftwood — and children are expertly dressed and coiffed to the nth degree of cuteness.
For most of us with children, the reality is something else. It's handwritten table assignments, if at all. It's kids' drawings, mismatched tablecloths, and napkins. It's fine china abutting everyday dinnerware because your guest list has exceeded what you registered for, years ago. And there are definitely faces smeared with food. The magazine layout is a snapshot, an arrested example of what a holiday is "supposed" to look like. The image doesn't account for what happens before or after the photo is taken — the chaos that ceases, momentarily, when the camera clicks. That carefully cultivated kind of image is iconic and, perhaps to some, enviable.
But that's not why we've ditched the kids' table. As a mom of grade-school twin boys, I'm more pragmatic than that.
We've abandoned the kids' table at Thanksgiving for reasons both logistical and philosophical.
My boys are now seven. In the past, when the crowd exceeded 10 people, that typically meant my in-laws were here; along with my dad; my sister and her wife; and my husband's cousin Molly and her family, which includes two young girls. That meant our separate, round table — our first purchase with our apartment, years ago, from IKEA — transformed into the kids' table. It didn't fit too well against the long rectangular tables we ran in tandem, so it became its own tiny island.
When they were smaller, the kids enjoyed the special table for themselves. Inevitably, though, dinner turns into a game of musical chairs — adults included. First, children under the age of five usually require assistance with cutting their food, so there's adult intervention right from the start. Another child would then abruptly dash, unannounced, from the table to the bathroom. Another would start crying because of what was — or wasn't — on the plate. Sometimes a child would depart the table entirely and set up camp in the living room, engaged in a toy. Another child might migrate to the "adults'" table, because kids are curious and many struggle with sitting still. Plus, they get excited. At least one adult reliably ends up at the kids' table, year after year.
With all this shifting, it's a long shot that anyone ends up with a hot meal. Those of us responsible for these offspring would look at each other, shrug or laugh, take another sip of beer or wine, and feebly attempt to restore order. Temporarily.
This madness, this charade, has to stop.
Interruptions are minimized if children are integrated into the experience. The years when it's just been us and Molly's family, we set the two long tables and everyone sits together. At Christmas, there is no kids' table; this is strictly a Thanksgiving thing for us and, I suspect, many other families. These all-at-one-table gatherings have been much more manageable; if you set the table so that the kids are sprinkled in among the adults, it's easy to help anyone who needs it. There's a win right there.
Children are smarter than we often give them credit for and respond to the way they are treated. If we bring them fully into the experience, they often rise to the occasion, no matter what it is. This is also why I advocate acclimating kids toward restaurant experiences as soon as possible. How are they going to learn if they aren't being provided with an opportunity? I think there's no better way to teach kids how to behave at the table with adults then to actually put them at the table with adults. They need practice waiting their turn to say something when the conversation breaks. They need our compassion for when they interrupt anyway. And they definitely need our patience when they change their minds about what's on their plate, or ask for another helping of something. Or whatever.
Granted, this set-up might not work for every family. It depends on how raucous and off-color the conversations become among the adults, not to mention the seemingly ubiquitous family member who gets all politically prickly at inopportune times like holiday gatherings. For us, it's the right move. We're all together in one room together anyway; it doesn't feel right to quarantine children off on their own island, as if they are in exile, or less than. If you treat these tiny humans as adults-in-training, they will sense it; they will feel respected. And you will have a holiday table that's more representative of how life really is, not some aspirational, airbrushed simulacra. Thanksgiving is about being present — it just feels right to live up to the holiday's simple, most central ideal.
How do you feel about the kids' table? Do you have one or are your big meals all ages?