My wife had always wanted a nice, big family table. She envisioned the kind you see in magazines, with a table runner and a beautiful centerpiece — a large bowl of fresh fruit or a vase with the perfect flower arrangement, pumpkins and various other gourds in the fall.
But we couldn’t afford one. So instead, through seven or eight years of marriage and three kids, we sat around a leftover from our apartment days.
It was small and square and covered with what used to be white tiles. The first two kids added their own flare, and trying to get permanent marker out of white tile and grout proved to be a task too great even for the amazing Magic Eraser.
So for years, everybody had a side around our sad little table. When Jacob came along, his highchair hovered over one of the corners. Entertaining meant we unfolded the card table. Still, we got by.
Even after we had the money to replace it, we were too cheap to do so. But a handful of years ago, a furniture store was going out of business, and we finally broke down and bought a beautiful, deep walnut table.
Sadly, it was the first really nice piece of furniture we had bought, and it looked magnificently out of place. Recalling the damage our little darlings did to our previous table, we took steps to ensure this one would stay nice. So we went and bought a couple yards of clear, thin plastic to protect the wood surface from paint spills and pencil marks and scissor scratches. (Remember your grandma’s plastic-covered couches? She was no dummy.)
The plastic sheet has been replaced about a half-dozen times, and it needs replacing again. You can barely see the beautiful wood beneath the paintbrush strokes and hot glue spots. And while we’ve tried centerpieces, they just get in the way of the piles of graded papers and stacks of mail, the laptop and grocery ads and unread newspapers.
The only thing that adorns the center of our family table now is a quart Mason jar that is slowly being filled with loose change and a few dollar bills. It’s not a swear jar; we tried that, but it only got filled up when the kids’ uncles came over.
No, this is a yelling jar, and it made its initial appearance on our table last week. As much as we try to be models of kindness and love to our children, they can, from time to time (fine, much of the time), push us to where we snap. So we yell — a lot … all of us. We don’t start off yelling. We start off asking nicely, but because our kids apparently don’t have fully functioning ears, my beautiful, devout wife and I are forced to raise the volume of our voices to the point where we frighten our children into doing what needs done.
And, in a development that should surprise nobody, it turns out we are raising four little yellers. We yell at the older three. They yell at each other (especially poor little Jacob, who might be sweet and cute, but he doesn’t listen for anything), we all constantly yell at the dog, and Dominic, the baby, is beginning to loudly and defiantly voice his growing opinions.
While we have rolled with this parenting method for more than a decade, apparently going around shouting at everybody isn’t the best way to foster familial love. Now, everyone (except the baby, who continues his free ride through life) is fined a quarter every time they are caught raising their voice (or insulting someone).
We took bets on who would be paying out the most. The kids seemed to agree with me that their mother would have to pay out like a loose slot machine (we thought battling with the boys at bedtime would do her in), but that hasn’t been the case. I am going broke 25 cents at a time.
The placement of the jar is not a coincidence; it’s for practicality. The cause of my inevitable poverty centers on the activities that take place at that very table: dinner and homework. At dinner, I would save myself a fortune if I invested in signs that state a few well-worn phrases: “Grant, stop using your fingers to pick up your food”; “You’re full? Then I guess you don’t want a snack later”; and “Jacob. Sit. Down.”
As far as homework goes, I’m not sure who has less patience, the boys or me. If Grant and Jacob flunk fourth and first grade, it will simply be because I didn’t have enough quarters to fight the good fight.
So after a week or so, we have made 26 deposits — $6.50 for the math impaired (ahem, Grant) — into the yelling jar. If I’m being honest, we’ve shortchanged it considerably. If we continue on this pace, by next July, we’ll have more than $280 to go toward our family vacation.
Aside from being an easy savings plan, has it helped curtail the shouting? I think it certainly has made us aware of how much yelling we do — and how nasty we can be to each other.
My hope is that, eventually, joy and love can take the places of frustration and anger as we all sit around our big, beautiful, plastic-covered table.
Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.