Vertically Challenged

Vertically Challenged

Treating the Nonhierarchical Family

By Ron Taffel

September/October 2009

When I was growing up, dinner was at 6:30 p.m. sharp every night, timed to my father's arrival home from work. The menu was entirely predictable according to the day of the week. There were no substitutions, just one meal for the whole family. And, of course, it wouldn't be considered a real meal without some sort of artery-clogging meat as its centerpiece.

As we sat around the table, I don't remember that a single phone call ever interrupted the stories my mother plied us with about this and that person she'd met at the local butcher's, or at Tasty Pastry, the neighborhood bakery. This wasn't because no one was around to call, but because everyone else was similarly engaged—eating dinner at about the same time, and eating pretty much the same thing.

Afterward, on summer nights, parents would gather in front of their homes to sit on plastic beach chairs and talk with neighbors. Meanwhile, we kids were off in the park playing games on our own, but in clear sight of at least a hundred adults in the neighborhood, no matter how hard we tried to pretend otherwise. There were no curfews, except that every child arrived back home at the same time—just when the circle of adults adjourned.

Compared to that sepia image from a half-century ago, dinnertime these days is a different event altogether. In fact, with so many contending schedules and dietary demands, is there such a thing as a family mealtime anymore? Even when family members…

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