Amazon Alexa at our Dinner Table

Family dinner is the goal.

And I’m reminded of this every time I read an article hightlighting the value and parental stress imbedded within this longtime cultural ritual. With each article, I always feel the same emotions – an equal and offsetting dose of guilt and hope. 

Ethel Rohan’s article in the Washington Post is the most recent in a long list of articles that leave me believing the benefits outweigh the costs – even though it never quite feels that way. 

I’ve long said parenting is the hardest of jobs. Unlike so many things in life with its instant gratification, you only know if you’ve succeeded at parenting some 20 years after the fact. Sometimes even longer. I often think my mom is probably still wondering when it comes to me (yes, it’s still touch and go 😜). I suppose family dinner, like so many things related to parenting, will be graded in the years that lie ahead. 

But for now, without clearity into our distant future some 20 years from now, family dinner is the goal. No matter, it would seem, how painful the endeavor often feels. I do, like most I presume, often wonder if I’m doing more harm than good. And I never quite know what to require. What to insist upon. And what to give up on and give into. Balancing enforcer and merciful father. 

Of course there is no single way to do family dinner. I often think about this too. I have fond memories of family dinners consisting of microwaved TV dinners consumed, appropriately, before the family television. The mashed potatoes were always cold in the center. The cherry pie, which I never fancied much anyways, always nuked beyond recognition. A main of  Salisbury steak or Fried chicken. My sister and I would sit on our plush green carpeted floor, backs pressed against the couch, and eat our dinners together while we watched Full House or the Cosby Show or MacGyver or some other cultural force in our lives at the time. Certainly the generations before ours wouldn’t recognize this ritual by the name “family dinner.” But we loved it all the same.  

Headed into the weekend, family dinner was on my mind. It isn’t that I can’t get them to the table. They are article boys, so food is the ultimate motivator for this. But keeping them at the table for longer than 37 seconds is a struggle. A blessing on the food, for which they are always less reverent than I would prefer, is followed by a few quick bites before suddenly vanishing. Often they simply flop on the couch in the next room. Or return to the device that they “painstaking” left only minutes before. Perhaps I need to reinstitute the process of seeking, and waiting for, permission to leave the table.

Friday’s family dinner consisted of Chinese takeout – another favorite family dinner memory of my childhood I hope to pass on. We eat together at the table but it doesn’t last long. At least not as long as I would prefer. Saturday was a failure all the way around. I’m still not sure why exactly. Poor planning and poor execution I suppose. That is also true for lunch on Sunday. I discuss lunch on our drive home from church, hoping to socialize the idea. But it just doesn’t materialize as I was hoping. And when I realize, too late of course, that I’ve lost Sunday lunch, I stubbornly insist to myself that I will not lose Sunday dinner.  

I give them hours of notice – family dinner will be at 5PM – and I remind them frequently leading up to the appointed hour. Five o’clock arrives and it’s still a struggle to get them to the table. Once there however, they begin instantly to devour dinner like a pack of ravenous unfed dogs. Life with boys is fully materializing before me! And just as quickly they move to leave the table. 

I corral them back to the table. Apprehensively.Begrudgingly. The desire to flee clear in their eyes. “We’re done eating!” they contest. But family dinner, despite their focused perspective on their stomachs, has nothing to do with food as every parent will attest. And starting tonight ours is going to last longer than 37 seconds. That’s when I invite Alexa to her first family dinner. “Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes.” Their eyes widen. “20 minutes!!!” They bemoan.

I’m sure as time goes on, Alexa’s role at our family dinners will evolve. But for now, she gets to play enforcer which lets me play conversationist. Even if our conversation is interupted a few times with the question, “Alexa, how much left on the time?!!!”

Looking forward to our next family dinner. And grateful Alexa will be joining us from here on out.