Jill gave me a child-rearing book, Blessings of a Skinned Knee, which, among other tips of real sense, advises that dinner hour is sacred.
I looked across the living room. Alex munching chicken nuggets by hand and Ned absently spooning in white rice as he watched Toy Story, his spillage mounting like a snow bank at his feet, didn’t spell “sacred.”
So we inaugurated the Stimpson Family Dinner Hour. Most families have one. Kramer on “Seinfeld” said so. “And do you know what happens over dinner?” Kramer said. “You talk about your day! ‘How was your day today? Did you have a good day or a bad day today? And how was your day today?'”
Jerry, stunned: “I’m glad we had this talk.”
Kramer, agitated: “Oh, you have no idea!”
Ned will eat most of what we eat, more or less: spaghetti, roast chicken, broccoli, spinach and peas. He loves potatoes and rice, and may be moving into childhood’s renowned “white phase” at the table. “TA-toe,” coos Ned. Both boys will eat chicken and fries from numerous cheap spots around our neighborhood. The Chinese hole-in-the-wall around the corner serves a lo mien so good I swear they put opium in it. Whatever Ned doesn’t eat of that is gone in a few seconds.
Alex will eat the chicken from the lo mien, but in general he would still have to loosen up a lot at the table to even qualify as “picky.” ‘Whatever fires in our heads regarding good and new foods hasn’t yet fired completely in his, and his eating is still kind of parked at chicken nuggets and crunchy stuff like pretzels. Kind of, though in the past year Alex has taken many steps toward eating like a Manhattanite and started to accept yogurt (the expensive stuff), ice cream (Mister Softee), and pizza (preferably in the restaurant). Both boys can each now take care most of the toasted cheese off a full slice, which is heartening. “Jeez, that sounds pretty good,” more than one nutritionist has said of Alex’s eating.
But dinner at the table has as much to do with sculpting behavior as it does with diet. The dinner hour campaign goes hand in hand with my new Skinned Knee-inspired parenting energy, which the other day included an honest-to-dad memo to Jill. “I think we should start doing the following things with the boys immediately,” I e-mailed her. “1. Make the boys wipe up their own spills. No exceptions! 2. Make the boys use the hand-broom and dustpan to sweep up their own crumbs. No exceptions! 3. Make the boys take their own dishes into the kitchen after dinner. NO EXCEPTIONS!” Skinned Knee stipulates that everybody should do these chores, as well as have an assigned seat at the dinner table, though it doesn’t say so in capital letters.
Ned has been eating at the kiddie table for a long time (see “snow bank”), but for an embarrassing number of months Alex has slipped through our parental net and chowed down on nuggets in front of the TV. Even though he’s shown sparks of wanting to eat at the table — he took the Chinese beef off the plates of dinner guests about six months ago, and usually hangs around munching his pretzels when grandma and grandpa come to dinner — I knew I couldn’t simply staple a special-needs 5-year-old into his assigned dinner seat and open fire with peas and broccoli.
One night I coaxed him to the kiddie table and sat down with him over some baked ravioli. Pizza, I’d been assured, could be the gateway to pasta. “I think Alex wants more and more to eat with someone,” I told Jill the night before. I gave him a fork and took a fork myself, and I nibbled. I cut his single ravioli square into four pieces and mine into six, to make mine last longer. I speared one of his quarters and held it up for him. He took the fork, gently removed the ravioli with his fingers, and held it to his lips. Touching the lips with many foods is Alex’s way of convincing himself he’s an adventurous eater, I think. Most of them he passes back. There is almost never any pile of food at Alex’s feet.
Then he nibbled. Alex ate ravioli!
He ate it the next night, too. Time for the grown-ups’ table.
I’d sure like to get this dinner-hour thing down soon. The boys’ bouncing around at Passover caused a terrible row, and now more holidays loom. Ned we can kind of count on, especially if there’s something white to eat. Alex is tougher, and to special family dinners I plan to bring an emergency kit of favorite toys, scented candles (his old EI special-ed. teacher has pointed out that unusual smells sometimes calm autistic kids), and the Doomsday Machine of Mutually Assured Peacefulness with Alex at dinner: Cheese Doodles.
But still, it’d be nice if we had something approaching a normal meal.
Skinned Knee, the parenting book Jill lent me, stresses that sharing food is a sacred part of family life (the book talks specifically about Jewish family life and the importance to it of sharing food; I come from more a pioneer-in-a-blizzard heritage, where everybody hoards what they have: this could explain past friction when Jill always asked for a piece of my pie…). The book also says that children should not only be taught to respectfully break the McNugget, but even respect the seating arrangements.
At our dinners, I take an end seat — a position of authority I think has more to do with tradition in other families than personal charisma on my part — and Jill sits on my left. Alex sits on her left, and Ned sits on my right. The chair to Ned’s right is empty, because if anybody sat there they’d kick over the stack of books Jill has been meaning to take to the Salvation Army.
“How was school today, Alex?”
Alex doesn’t answer much, and he particularly doesn’t answer much when not 15 minutes before he discovered the bread-making machine in the kitchen corner. Tonight Jill has made Chinese beef and peppers with white rice. We’ve discussed what Ned thinks of rice, and bear in mind that it was Chinese beef that Alex swiped from those guests’ plates weeks ago. So we’re hopeful.
“Did you have a good day today, Ned?” I asked.
(Jerry, stunned: “I’m glad we had this talk…”)
“Oh good day, yeah,” he said, I guess. But his next words are quite clear: “More rice, please!”
We give him some. He holds a handful in front of my nose and says, “Here, daddy.” Alex is screeching in front of the TV, aghast that Wee Sing Train has actually been darkened for family dinner time. I get up and bring him back. Jill has placed little cuts of beef on each boy’s plastic flower plate. Each boy also has a fork; Ned uses his with growing skill (tonight’s snow pile is small), and Alex will often eat things off a utensil that he wouldn’t like to touch, which makes sense. Once he ate a mean off the plastic head of a toy chicken, which doesn’t make sense. “That is, I admit, crazy,” said Jill.) Alex should by all rights eat some bread tonight, judging from how he’s been incessantly fiddling with Jill’s bread machine in the corner of our kitchen.
“Alex, we sit down to eat dinner!” We do now, anyway.
“Okay all right okay,” he says. He tries to sail around my end of the table and toward the kitchen like a linebacker dodging a block to get to the quarterback. I snag him.
“Back to the table, Alex.”
“More rice, please!” Ned says.
I seat Alex while Jill scoops out more rice for Ned to handle. Alex picks up the beef and places it on his closed lips, which he seems to believe is as good as eating. He places it back on the plate and bolts, this time slipping past me into the kitchen and crying, “Chicken!”
“Make him the damned nuggets,” Jill says. “Pick up your rice, Ned.”
“Rice. Oh yeah. Rice.”
The damned nuggets take 15 minutes, so in the meanwhile I ask Alex if he’d like something else. He gets a bowl out of the drawer and looks at the cabinet above the fridge. “You want a few pretzels, Alex?” He stares at the cabinet out of the corner of his eye, appears sheepish and indecisive, then bolts for the broom closet on the other side of the room.
No way, Alex. What do you think this is, Thanksgiving?
“Alex, you can have some pretzels.”
“You can have some Cheerios,” I say.
“Pretzels,” he says softly. “Pretzels please daddy.”
I shovel some out. “You have to eat them at the table with us, Alex,” I say. “At the big table.”
“Okay all right.”
He sits. I eat my cool Chinese food and see that Ned is on his tummy across the empty chair to his right, slapping at the stack of books and I guess hoping that its collapse will take our mind off the rice that has to be swept up at the base of his chair. Actually Ned’s getting better about learning how to sweep. So’s Alex, which is good because when the timer goes ding and his chicken is done, he bolts from the big table back toward the TV. We’ve been eating for 15 minutes.
Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, and The Autism Society news blog.Tweet