Czech school traditions for the midday meal
There’s trouble at preschool, again. A few months ago Oliver was reprimanded for not being able to dress and undress himself properly. We’ve been working on that one, and I think he has improved, mildly. The other day, however, his pleasant, but reserved teacher told me that Oliver had been zlobivý (naughty). The children’s teachers rarely give me information unless there’s a problem, so I took her words to heart. Although in Czech the word zlobivý doesn’t always seem to carry the same strong negative implications, the problem was serious, at least in the eyes of the school’s director. She wanted something to be done about Oliver’s behavior immediately. I asked for details, expecting to hear that Oliver had thrown a toy, hit another child, fought with his classmates or perhaps used offensive language. I was speechless when the teacher finally pronounced his offense: Oliver was talking during lunch.
The teacher went on to say that Oliver also talked during circle time, but their primary concern was his lunch time chatter, which started a ripple effect among the other students and caused a disruption to the generally silent mealtime atmosphere. While I understand deviation from the norm can be disconcerting, I also had trouble imagining a silent cafeteria of pre-school children in the US. The teacher’s concerns seemed a bit strict to me. I learned from Anna Lee that the children recite a traditional “blessing” before each meal: dobré chutnání a bez povídání! (Enjoy your food without talking!) The teacher stressed how naughty it was that Oliver talked with his tablemate when he was supposed to eat without talking. Then she asked if Oliver did the same at home.
On weeknights, I often feed the baby in his high chair while Oliver and Anna eat together at a children’s table. Later they have fruit or dessert at the big table while Radek and I eat. Sure, there’s a little noise, but it never occurred to me that there shouldn’t be conversation at a dinner table. Still, I almost immediately felt guilty that our dinner time routine wasn’t calmer and quieter. I wondered if by allowing a little chaos I had taught Oliver poor (Czech) manners. Nonetheless, I am strict about not allowing the children to talk with their mouths full of food, and I’m constantly asking them to wipe their faces with a napkin (instead of their shirt sleeve), and to keep their elbows off the table. So, I don’t believe our family meals are entirely without manners. However, Oliver’s teacher’s comments made it apparent that appropriate mealtime behavior is a cultural issue.
When I spoke with different Czech friends about the situation, their perspectives varied. One contemporary of Radek’s remembered that “no-talking-while-eating” was a respected rule of his father’s that he’d never questioned growing up. Another Czech mother brushed the teacher’s comments aside and told me that if talking during mealtime was Oliver’s worst problem, then I should be thankful. It’s the teacher’s problem, not yours, she offered. When I asked a non-Czech mom from a bi-cultural family, she murmured knowingly, and said that her Czech husband had made sure that that particular “rule” wasn’t enforced in his daughter’s preschool because he remembered hating it from his own childhood. While Radek thought the rule might be a bit old-fashioned, he was more bothered by the fact that Oliver had caused enough of a disruption in school that his teacher expressed her disapproval to us, rather than the particulars of the rule he’d broken.
Although I had no idea that such a cultural norm existed, I have lived here long enough to realize the importance of conforming while in a group, as well as the emphasis Czechs place on a hot, mid-day meal. Growing up, dinner was the hot-meal that my family ate together and lunch was the time for a quick sandwich. In the Czech Republic, the tradition is reversed – as it is throughout much of Europe. Dinner here is a simpler fare of bread rolls, yogurts and perhaps an open-faced sandwich. Of course, whenever I eat a heavy Czech lunch, the only thing I want to do afterward is have a nap.
Even at preschool, the children are fed a soup first, then a second course, typically a meat and an accompanying starch, such as rice, dumplings or potatoes. As far as I know, there is no option of packing a cold lunch and bringing it to a Czech state school, as is common in public schools in the US. Instead, in some schools, it is customary for schoolchildren to go home for their hot lunch. One of my friends, who registered her daughter for first grade in a school close to their flat, said that the school’s director was surprised when she requested that her daughter eat lunch at school, saying that the majority of the students that live nearby go home to eat. Neither my friend nor I could imagine serving our children a hot lunch every day, particularly when they would be able to get the same at school.
Yet, I often wonder what my children are actually eating at lunch. As soon as they hit the car Anna Lee typically exclaims, “Hungry.” This single word, half-statement, half-demand, quickly turns my mood sour. Although Anna repeatedly assures me that she does, in fact, eat her school lunch, curiosity finally got the better of me and I asked her teacher directly about Anna’s eating habits. She affirmed that Anna eats an average-sized portion of food and often cleans her plate, but never goes for second helpings. Then, Anna herself confessed that she never goes for seconds or wants a larger portion because she always wants to be the first one finished, since that student gets to give out the toothpaste to the others. As a reward, the toothpaste helper gets a piece of hard candy from the teacher. After learning the whole story, I was doubly annoyed. First that the teacher was encouraging her students to eat quickly so that they could have a special privilege, and second the “reward” for that privilege was candy.
It’s a running joke among the Czechs in our neighborhood that I’m too strict about monitoring candy for the children. While I don’t mind them eating cake or ice cream for dessert, I’d prefer they didn’t eat a lot of gelatin gummies or hard candies. I didn’t like the idea of Anna Lee racing through her meal just to earn candy. Plus, it saddled me with the burden of fixing her a second healthy “lunch” each afternoon to compensate for the rushed one. After getting the facts straight, Anna and I talked about the problem and she agreed to try to slow down so that I wouldn’t have to ask her teacher to take her out of the first-to-finish “contest.”
Despite my initial frustration, having Oliver’s teacher draw my attention to the school’s lunch time routine actually proved beneficial. Oliver and I had a talk about respecting his school’s lunch time rules and trying his best to keep his focus on his meal, and not on conversation. Oliver doesn’t like to be in trouble and he seems to genuinely want to change his behavior, but I know how hard it can be for him to remember to stay quiet. In the end, I decided to leave our family’s dinner time routine unchanged. I think conversation at the table is the sign of a healthy family life. It’s important to me that the children share parts of their day with their father before they go off to bed. Although I’d love to have everyone eat as a family during the week, it just isn’t possible. So having them sit with us and make conversation instead seems like a good substitute while they’re still young. Soon enough we’ll have to fit homework into our nightly routine too, and that will limit time for catching up even more so.
At school, I thanked Oliver’s teacher for letting me know about the problem and promised we were trying to help him understand that he needed to respect the school’s rules. After a few days of checking on Oliver’s progress it seemed he’d managed to stop talking during lunch, I was delighted. That is until the teacher retorted, “Now, he’s talking during nap time.” Learning manners is to be tackled one step at a time, I suppose.