I am not my children’s friend.
I require them to say please, thank you, and ask to be excused. I tell my daughter that no, she may not talk on the phone during dinner. I have them ask for special favors (spending the night, eating dinner with a friend) in advance and out of the hearing of their friends. Not only that, I require the same of their visiting friends.
I got most of this from my mother-in-law. My parents required no such niceties, so probably I came across to my friends’ parents as barely more than an ill-mannered ragamuffin, trying to figure out unspoken codes. My family ate dinner in front of the TV, so I never knew how to say grace or pass food or make small talk. I do not want my children to be adrift when they go into the world.
My MIL requires all males to remove their ubiquitous baseball caps indoors. Or any hat, for that matter. A man could be wearing a 10 gallon black Stetson and my MIL would make him take it off.
“I was the mean one on the block,” she often tells me with pride. Grown men in their 40s still remember to say please and thank you and take off their hats in her presence.
She told the story of how a boy from around the corner came to see her. A boy no longer; he is a man now in his early 20s. He was a boy whose parents willfully ignored his pot use during high school and who dropped out and got a girl pregnant, now a man who counts how many days he has been clean and sober while still living with his mother. This man recently knocked on the door and said, “I just wanted to thank you for teaching me to take off my hat. I took off my hat at my new girlfriend’s house and her parents fell in love with me! They could not believe it.”
You can’t argue with results like that.
Anyway, one of the precepts I never learned is the art of being polite at dinner. Do not criticize food, or else you will make dinner the next night, even if you are 7 years old. Take small servings and then more if you like it. And, especially, eat what is offered you with a smile, because no one likes a dinner guest who spits out carefully lovingly prepared food with an EWWWW.
Last night, I served beets.
Now, we get a large box of veggies every two weeks from a group of Japanese farmers here. The veggies are cheap– only $10– but they include a whole lot of beets. Beets are easy to grow and large and I never know what to do with them.
At Costco, I saw a pound of goat cheese for $5. Pretty cheap. I vaguely remembered eating a roast beet and goat cheese salad at some fancy restaurant a while back. The creaminess and tang of the goat cheese goes well with the sweetness of the roasted beets and the crunch of the salad. Yum. I decided to make it.
I found a recipe roasted the beets, made the dressing and the salad, and made the rest of the food (barbecued pork ribs, fresh corn on the cob, rice, with a chocolate Costco cake for dessert).
At first, I didn’t force the kids to try the beets, but then I remembered the precept. I had to get the kids to try beets, in case they went to a friend’s house and were served something godawful. Now, considering all the cultures around here, I figured the likelihood of somebody visiting a friend and getting served kimchee or something even more exotic is high. I don’t want my children to be Those Children, the ones tolerated but barely so, the ones who rankle the adults.
So I put a tiny tiny portion on each of their plates with a bit of goat cheese and told them to try it.
I expected Elyse to eat her graciously. She’s the one who ate a yam and pretended to like it, several years ago, so much so that I didn’t know she DIDN’T like it. But she spit it out in her napkin.
Displeased, I said, “Only those who politely eat their beets will get a slice of cake.”
Is this wrong? Bribery? Was I supposed to hide the beets in some other food and trick them into trying it? No. I told them to try it, it was served, and dammit, they were going to eat it. It was less than the size of my pinky nail. They would not die.
Ethan ate his beet without a SOUND or grimace. I was impressed, because he is the one ultra-sensitive to everything: new tastes, odd tastes, his general environment.
“And what would you say if I offered you more?” I asked him.
“No thank you. I wouldn’t want to hog all the deliciousness,” he said promptly and cleverly.
I do believe that boy will grow up to be a politician.
I’m okay with being the mean one. Call me Mrs. Dilloway, or Auntie Margaret here; not just Margaret. Remove your hats. Say please and thank you. Maybe one day, I’ll get the knock on the door and a thank-you from some now-grown up child, too.