Question & Answer With Psycho Toddler - Small Kids At The Shabbos Table
A Simple Jew asks:
As a father of six children, what realistic expectations of behavior do you think a parent with small children should have at the Shabbos table? Also, what advice could you give such a person on how to run a successful Shabbos table?
Psycho Toddler answers:
Y'know, I was watching some old home movies the other night, circa 1994. And in those movies, I had 4 small children between the ages of 1 and 5. And after watching them, myself, my wife, and all of our interactions, I came to the realization that I'm not that person anymore, and I don't have the same relationship with my teenagers that I had with my toddlers. And not only don't I really remember what it was like then, I'm not sure which version of me I prefer.
So I guess maybe that's good, eh? I don't pine for the old days when my kids were small and under my direct control. And it probably means that I've raised a bunch of people whom I like and whose company I enjoy. But the practical upshot, vis a vis your question, is that I'm not sure if I remember what it was like to have a bunch of little ones at the Shabbos table.
I will say this, though: We didn't go out much on Shabbos. There were good reasons. The primary being that we had no eruv when my kids were small. That in and of itself was interesting, because kids didn't go to shul on Shabbos until they were old enough to walk, and by then it became a special privilege to go to shul, and so we expected the utmost in good behavior from them, both in terms of the long walk (kids who were prone to running off and not listening stayed home) and their behavior when they arrived. The other reason we didn't go out, even after our kids could walk or we got an eruv, was because I didn't want to be in the position of having to police them constantly at someone else's house during a long and often boring meal (from their standpoint…and…maybe also from mine).
So back to our place. My goal was always to have the kids comfortable at the table. Nobody enjoys a Shabbos meal with a bunch of fidgety, whining kids. So the length of the meal was often tailored to allow them to stay for the bulk of the meal. I also was not a stickler about having them sit at the table the whole time. They stayed as long as there was something for them to do ( i.e. eat), and then we let them go off and play, or read. The Shabbos meal should not be onerous for young kids. They come to hate it if it is.
We also focused our attention on them while they were at the table. Kids like to be the center of attention. If you think you're going to have a long philosophical discussion or a long involved Dvar Torah with a bunch of tiny tots at the table, you are delusional. They don't want to be ignored. So you either have to get them away from the table, or "table" your adult discussions until they are asleep or older, whichever comes first. This may, unfortunately, limit whom you invite for meals.
But, you know what? They DO get older. And their attention spans improve. And instead of sacrificing your table talk to focus on kids, as they get older, you actually will come to enjoy their contributions to the conversation. So my advice is, be a father first, and a host second, and keep that in mind, and eventually, it all works out.