What mother has not almost pulled her hair out, stifled a scream, or locked herself in the bathroom out of desperation for a five-minute breather during that awful time known as "the witching hour"?
Indeed, that hour before - and sometimes during - dinner, when everyone is more likely to be tired, cranky and hungry, can jangle the nerves of the calmest parent.
Mothers (and even if both mom and dad are working, somehow mom is usually the one in charge of dinner) feel particularly pressured during the late afternoon hours.
A working moms may just be getting home, exhausted and wanting to get dinner under way. But kids who haven't seen her all day may want her undivided attention. Once your first child is born, that break we need to relax upon arriving home from work goes out the window.
A stay-at-home mom who has been in the park or out doing errands or chauffeuring kids around all afternoon may also feel pressured to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour.
In short, it's a time when no one is at their best.
Here, from the field, are some tried and true tips for surviving the witching hour - and maybe even enjoying it.
Appoint a "Dinner Helper"
When assigning the weekly chores to family members, have one of the regular jobs be "dinner helper". Although it may take some cajoling to get little ones to cooperate, having another set of hands - even small ones - in the kitchen to peel carrots, tear lettuce, wash rice or cut potatoes can be a real boon to the dinner-maker. Of course, it also helps teach responsibility, adds to the child's feeling of contributing to the family, and teaches some skills he'll need when he's on his own.
Prepare in Advance
If at all possible, try to have some dinner preparations made earlier in the day: you can wash the lettuce, trim the vegetables, or measure ingredients. That will save both time and energy during this hectic hour.
Enjoy Music While You Work
Put on soothing music and set out paper and water colors or real clay on the table. Working with the hands to music helps soothe the soul of a fractious child.
Give Them the Attention They Deserve
In her book The Second Year of Life (Walker and Co., New York, 1991), Dr. Nina Lief, child psychiatrist and pediatrician, advises working parents to give their children, especially babies and toddlers, the undivided attention they crave after a day of separation before attending to dinner.
"Depending on the hour the parents come home, it is generally a good idea to have the caretaker feed the child earlier. It is often hard for the child to eat [during] the excitement of the parents' arrival home," she writes.
"Whichever parent gets home first can play with the child. The other can take over for a while (while the spouse makes dinner). After some initial attention, the child will be more willing to sit with the parents - perhaps having a snack or dessert - while they eat dinner.
"The important thing to recognize is the child's need; that is why he or she clings and craves attention. The child is not being naughty; he is behaving appropriately for his age and demonstrating his attachment to the parents.
"The more cheerfully you respond to the child's need for attention - and the more complete your attention is upon first coming home - the sooner your child will feel reassured and relaxed. Children sense your tension and become upset; so the more relaxed you can be, the happier the situation will be for all."
And during dinner...
Make it Fun!
Compete with yourselves as a group to see how long everyone can stay silent. Use a stopwatch and start with one minute. If you succeed, move up to two, three, etc. You'll be surprised at how relaxing it can be for everyone without constant chatter. It also does wonders for the bickering.
Keep joke books by the table and take turns reading or telling jokes during dinner.
Turn it into a Family Romance!
Once in a while, try having a candlelight dinner for the whole family. Bring out the cloth napkins and the good dishes. Put on soft jazz or other music in the background. Entertain each other at dinner by making up and acting out commercials, such as pizza ads; try commercials for imaginary products such as fake toenails.
Yes, the "witching hour" can be survived! All it takes is a little thought and imagination!
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000