There is much to be said for dining by candlelight. I'm not talking about romance. I'm talking crowd control. And the crowd that needs controlling is the collection of kids that congregates near a table during family feeding time. Turning off the lights and firing up the candles has several beneficial effects.
First, it gets the kids to the table. Common sense dictates that when children are hungry, they should welcome the chance to sit at a table and eat. Common sense, however, seems to have little to do with the ritual of children sitting down at the supper table.
For example, when I call my kids to supper, they always have "one more thing" they "have to do" before arriving at the table. There is one more basketball that has to be shot, one more minute of television that has to be watched, one more skateboard maneuver that has to be mastered.
This one final task often takes 15 minutes to accomplish. Usually I get so steamed, I end up grabbing the basketball, snapping off the TV or confiscating the skateboard and ordering all parties to march to the table, sit down, and "enjoy the meal."
However, when candles are on the table, the kids come running. Like a moth to the flame, kids are drawn to fire. When, for example, I stand at the table and announce, "I am starting to light the candles," our 8-year-old and any of his visiting buddies immediately appear in the kitchen. They want to help.
Moreover, once the kids get to the table and help ignite the candles, the chances are good that they will stay seated, or at least in contact with the chairs. Maybe it is the allure of the primal elements, or the human equivalent of what makes rabbits stare at car headlights. Whatever you call it, kids love to stare at flickering candles.
The candlelight also helps when the kids get around to eating. Dim lighting, as owners of romantic restaurants have known for years, puts people in an indulgent mood.
Surround adults with candlelight and they are likely to forget their nagging doctors and order another glass of wine or a piece of hazelnut torte.
Put kids in candlelight and they might overlook the mysterious speck that appeared on their food. In the shadows, they might not notice when the corn and chicken juice touch each other on the plate. In the darkness, there is less chance to compare the lTC portion size of hated or treasured foods with the portions given to a hated or prized sibling.
There are, of course, drawbacks to dining by candlelight with the kids.
First of all, it can only be used occasionally. If you try firing up the candles more than twice a week, the novelty wears off.
Secondly, it provides only temporary relief. Candles can give a family 10 or maybe 15 minutes of peace and relative quiet. But at family meals, every minute of relative calm matters.
And, as kids get older, they not only want to light the dinner candles, they also want to blow them out in new and interesting ways.
Recently, for example I watched my 8-year-old and one of his buddies put a jar in front of a burning candle. The jar was taller than the candle. Instead of extinguishing the flame by blowing on the candlewick, the kids blew on the jar. One of the kids had seen this done in a science experiment. After several tries, the kids eventually blew hard enough and their breath scooted around the edges of the jar and snuffed the candle out.
Now the jar trick has become the household's preferred method of blowing out the candles.
Despite these disadvantages, I still like dining by candlelight with the kids. The other night, for instance, with two candles burning brightly, my family ate supper. The candlelight did not work miracles.
Even in the darkness the 8-year-old would not eat the chicken because it had passed suspiciously close to onions. And during the meal he took a few breaks from sitting at the table to ride around the kitchen on his big brother's skateboard. When he returned to the table, he amused himself by playing with the wax drippings of the candles.
But overall the meal seemed pleasant. The corn on the cob was close to the real thing, and the fresh-baked dinner rolls were hot. And chicken was good, especially drenched in onions.
The noise level was high, at least by most standards of civilized dining. But when the candles are glowing, even the shouting seems quieter.