Here's a tip: If you are too tired to converse with your young children over dinner, just eat quickly, then read them a book. Sometimes I have only a salad or snack-sized applesauce no one wants, before heading straight into the literary portion of the program.
This achieves the vaunted "sit-down dinner" without having to talk too long about anyone's day. Because the fact is that one day in elementary school is much like another. On a good night, we do "Best & Worst" in a review of the highlights and low-lights. If that seems dull, we do "Worst of the Worst," in which the one who recounts the worst experience "wins." (A social slight will beat out a minor playground injury, for instance.) For a while, it sounded like my son had an "enemy," which excited us, but it boiled down to the fact that she scored higher on a computer math game. Oh.
On the night I realized I could just read to them, we all perked up: Here, finally, was something to talk about besides our own small lives. A collection of international folktales stunned us with their casual brutality. By the time I'd finished the story of Margot the Black, who conjured the Devil on "the blackest night ever known in Denmark" and whose ghost still "haunts the ramparts of the great wall," the kids had finished their pasta and not once said: "I don't know. Nothing." Yes!
Lately, we've been reading James and the Giant Peach. And I'm beginning to realize that, in addition to jazzing up dinnertime, children's books are broadly educational across a range of subjects.
Spoiler alert: The giant peach squashes James's two aunts. Prior to this, Roald Dahl had taken pains to depict Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker as the most despicable, loveless, flagrantly abusive adults on the planet.
Yet, when the giant peach snuffed them out, my son was clearly troubled.
"That's violent," he said, wide-eyed. Unlike Dahl, who fought the Nazis as a pilot in World War II, he was a product of 21st-century California and a nice boy.
"Yes," I replied carefully. "But they were so mean to James! Don't you think they kind of deserved it?"
He didn't know. The idea that anyone might "deserve" to be killed by a rogue fruit in their own garden was unsettling, possibly immoral. Was the peach organic? Oh boy.
The other day, Dave happened to be around at storytime. The peach was in the ocean, surrounded by sharks, and its passengers -- a bunch of giant insects and James -- were hatching a plan which involved using the Earthworm as bait:
James went over and put an arm gently around the Earthworm's shoulders. "I won't let them touch you," he said.
"Wait," said Dave. "What does that mean, 'the Earthworm's shoulders'? Does an earthworm even have shoulders?"
This stumped us all, until my daughter finally yelled: "It means his back!"
Last week, after we forgot to send back her library book, my daughter was sent home with the Scarlet A of library science: the Black Dot book. Marked with a black dot, this despised article means the school doesn't trust you and doesn't care if you lose the book, which you probably will.
We've seen our share of Black Dot books, which are faded and have a distinctly 1970s vibe. Often they feature people in bellbottoms dancing through the streets, and little else.
Today's Black Dot book was called The Earth is Good. My son read it on the way home, in the backseat. It went:
The sun is good.
The earth is good.
[Page break for suspense]
and birds and bees are good. The flowers are good.
And so on. The three of us laughed so much, it was like a party in the car. Every page brought fresh hilarity. By the time it wrapped up with "And you are good," the children had been taught an important lesson:
"The earth is good! But that book is terrible."
(Image: "German American Kids Bookshelf" by user: Stilfehler - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)