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Our Teen Wants to Eat Dinner Alone — Should We Allow It?

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, as well as the blog Ben and Birdy. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner and their son and daughter who have mysteriously become as...

Do we insist that our teen joins us at the dinner table if he's just going to be grumpy about it?

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Welcome to Survivor in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.

Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.

Question: 

A 13-year-old boy not infrequently wants to take his dinner into his room because he either has a lot of homework to get done or desperately needs to "chill" or some combination of both. Should the parent insist that dinner be family time — even if that will result in glum, tension-filled family time?

Answer: 

I read your question to my kids, and maybe predictably, they visibly bristled when I got to the word insist. Teenagers seem to appreciate insist just about as much as their toddler selves appreciated bedtime or nasal aspiration — which is to say, they don’t yike it.

“Here’s what I really can’t stand,” the 17-year-old said. “When the vibe is that the parent is behind the scenes — making a decision, deciding how to enforce it, announcing, ‘This is my new policy!’ The parents should always be talking with their kids about the issue, whatever it is. They should be figuring it out together.” 

This seems like wise counsel. Can you talk transparently to 13 about dinner and your interest in him being there? “I miss you during the day," or “I feel like it’s important that we reconnect over food," or “I’m worried that it’s a slippery slope and that if you stop coming sometimes you’re going to end up coming never and then I won’t see you until I’m bailing you out of prison because of the meth lab you were running in your bedroom when I thought you were just in there eating your mac and cheese and listening to Stevie Wonder.” Whatever it is, can you say it as honestly as possible?

And can you brainstorm what might help dinnertime feel more like the kind of comfortable downtime he’s craving rather than another obligation in his packed day? Are there conversational topics that should be off-limits? School, maybe, or who’s eating what or how much or anything else that feels like a stress trigger. Are there siblings who can be less annoying? Word games that can be played to reduce the pressures of conversation and the needing to have one all the time? Would you rathers that can be debated? (Would you rather listen to the audiotape of your uncle’s bar mitzvah for the rest of your life or the soundtrack from Annie?) I write this as the adult who was the teenager who would have brought the giant chunk that is Stephen King’s The Stand to the dinner table every night if I’d been allowed to — I was an introvert and I didn’t even know it! — so I can understand how those ceaseless interactive expectations can really wear one down. Sometimes alone really does present itself as the only way to recharge.

So while their dad and I were both resisting the idea of letting 13 opt out, both kids thought that giving him a once- or twice-a-week pass would be super-helpful. Then he could count on that time — it would be predictable and in his own control — and instead of staggering to the table, grunting and smashing everything, bolts sticking out of his neck, maybe he’ll feel a little sunnier about the whole enterprise. It’s a good compromise: respectful of his wishes, but not going so far as to give up on him completely. I think if you untethered him from social obligation to the family, this adriftness would actually feel rotten. Yes, they push against us and our onerous requirements — but we need to keep being there to push against, don’t we? Their little boat wants to sail away, away, away, but we are dragging along the ocean floor, holding tight for now. Anchoring them is one of our jobs.

One last thing: I’m assuming — or maybe hoping — that the homework is a red herring. But if it turned out that 13 is truly so awash in algebra that he can’t spend a half an hour at the table? Then that might be another issue to look into — either his time management skills or the sadism of his teachers or whatever it is that’s creating such an insanely congested evening for him. Because, look, you gotta eat. And we gotta rescue them from their social studies or their phones or porn or grief or stress or their own grumpiness — from themselves, sometimes, while we still can.

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