Dinner ends when the kitchen is clean

Plenty of noise, but no people in sight. Lots of banging over my head. Everyone is upstairs yelling–they are playing or fighting or both. I’m alone downstairs, dejectedly taking in the carnage of another completed dinner.

Table and floor strewn with dishes, always at least one spilled cup, the mutilated butter, tipped salt. Plus, all my children are genetically compelled to remove from their plates to the table any offending food, despite all orders to just leave it lie on their plate like a civilized person. The floor at the baby’s end of the table quickly dispells any illusions I held that she actually ate anything.

So, food everywhere.

Plus, I’m a messy cook–in my true spirit of creating the need for haste simply for the thrill of the rush, I wait too long to start dinner, and whip it together in a plate-spinning-style effort with disaster in my wake. So, before me and behind me, chaos.

Go ahead and judge me, but sometimes I just leave it, desperate to get the bedtime routine done, only to come down afterward completely wasted and unable to face it. (Did you know that if the kitchen light is off, you can imagine that it is clean in there? It works!)

I decided this nightly wreckage was a great place to put my newfound love of (family-centered) child labor it to work, and the wonderful, magic words were born: Dinner ends when the kitchen is clean.

Or, put in more ominous terms, “No one leaves this room until I say so.”

Tonight looked like this:

Mom: Where are you guys going? No one has been excused or thanked anyone.

Children: [returning gloomily to mumble] MayIbeexcusedthankyoufordinner.

Mom: [starting to load the dishwasher] You are welcome and no you may not. Bring me everything off the table, put silverware in this bowl, stack plates here. Put the other things away. [Repeated every few minutes until done] Okay, Ben sweep the floor and clean the highchair. [Repeated every few minutes until done] Sophie, wipe down the table. No, not that way. Wipe the food into your hand, not onto the floor.

When there are complaints, I add sweeping the kitchen and washing the front of the fridge or stove. No, work is not a punishment, complaints just somehow help me think of more things that need to be done. I just can’t let complaints slide or they become a torrent and make a person crazy. (Perhaps I incorrectly assume everyone is teetering as close to the edge of sanity as I am.)

This does require that the family has dinner together on a regular basis, which is its own topic. For some mysterious reason, conversations consisting of kids’ complaints about their food alternating with parental scolding about their atrocious table manners is essential for proper emotional development.

So let it be known to one and all in this family…from this day forward: Dinner ends when the kitchen is clean.

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