Wednesday, October 15, 2008



It’s occurred to me in recent days that I’ve missed too much of my family’s life over the last few months. Thinking back, our family dinners that we value so much only occurred about one or two times each week over the summer and early fall. Sam, Aidan, and Noah aren’t even all in elementary school yet. But somehow, our lives have already become busy to the point of missed opportunities.

A few poignant moments brought me to this realization.

Each time we sit down to dinner as a family, we start the meal with a recurring conversation. Taking a cue from some friends back in Buffalo with amazingly well-adjusted kids, we take turns telling everyone at the table what was our favorite moment of our day. The boys look forward to this with great anticipation, as evidenced by their efforts some nights to begin the discussion before the food is even on the table. The last person from the previous meal gets to go first on the following night. As with everything else in little boys’ lives, there is from time to time, a genetic need for goofiness.

Rather than follow the rules and choose the next person, the boys have taken to either closing their eyes and, with the arm motions of what I can only describe as a crossing-guard having an epileptic fit, flailing their little limbs in every direction until they actually point to a real person. Their other option for creatively extending the length of our talk is to choose inanimate objects and answer for them. It is this practice that brought about my enlightenment.

At the dinner table some two weeks ago, the Favorite Part of the Day came around to Aidan. There was only one person left for him to choose, and he decided that the conversation was going to be over much too quickly. He began rattling off all the furniture in the room, saying, “I choose the chair. The chair’s favorite part of the day was . . .”

He continued on for half a dozen different items, none of which made even the remotest bit of sense. Just as Leah met my eyes in silent agreement that we needed to cut him off, he came out with this:

“I choose the light. The light’s favorite part of the day was having dead bugs in it.”

Instant Slow Motion.

In the seconds that followed, four pairs of eyes gazed up at the ceiling. Two mouths dropped open and peals of pure child laughter poured out. I looked at Leah again. Then two additional voices joined in.

A quick aside: My children love to tell jokes. Or at least what they perceive to be jokes. I suppose in some alternate dimension, they might actually be funny. Anyone who has sat down to dinner with us or been in the minivan when the mood strikes them has been subjected to their tortuous slapstick. In strict adherence to Chaos Theory, they get progressively worse and nonsensical with each successive turn. Our threshold holds out for about ten of these gems.

Random Child: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Audience: Why?
Random Child: Because the dinosaur told the pirate!
Other Children: HA! HA! HA! HA!
Adults: [cringe with mental anguish]

Back to the point: Aidan told a joke – an honest to goodness, funny joke. One that his big brother didn’t say first moments earlier. He absolutely beamed as the entire family laughed and laughed and laughed.

When we were finished, I realized that it might not have been the first time. I realized that by only sitting down to dinner once or twice each week as Leah and I have been pulled in every direction but home, that we were missing countless opportunities to tell each other stories, or jokes, or answer their questions about their world. How sad.

Fast forward one week. Sam came home from school in an absolutely horrible mood. At school that day he got himself into trouble because he was fooling around with another boy, one who I know has major behavior issues. Sam fed right into it on this particular day, and paid for it, losing a privilege in class.

At home, he yelled at his brothers. He threw fits. He stomped up the stairs to his room in tears after I sent him to bed right after dinner. A little later, Leah went up to talk to him.

Getting into trouble was not the only crappy event of his day. Apparently, another boy in his class told Sam that he didn’t want to be his friend. Because Sam couldn’t do subtraction as fast as he could. Upon hearing this, my heart broke.

Kids can be mean. This isn’t even close to the worst thing Sam will ever hear. It still hurt, though. What made it worse for me was that for the last six months I’ve been telling Leah that I intended to spend some time with him working on math skills. The school focused so much on reading that to me it seemed numbers took a back seat.

I had plans to solidify Sam’s basic skills, and to try to teach him some advanced stuff just to see if he liked it. Yet for the past six months, every time I’ve sat down at a computer, I do thirteen other things than work on a project for my own son.

Last week, I printed out a bunch of addition and subtraction sheets. I told Sam that for every one he finished, he would get 5 minutes of free computer time (games on Nick Jr.). He blew through two pages of addition and two pages of subtraction.

Then I taught him how to solve basic equations.

And after about 25 minutes, Sam solved an entire page of equations that I hadn’t learned until seventh grade. I saw his demeanor change when he understood what I was teaching him. The widening of the eyes, the mouth opening, and the little hop in his chair in eagerness to do more. I realized then that I’ve neglected my responsibilities as a teacher for my kids.

The next day, I went for a walk in the woods after dinner with Noah and Aidan. It was the first time in four months that we’d been out together. Four months since I walked with my children.

It’s time to simplify. It’s time to realize how unbelievably lucky I am in the face of what is happening in the world around us. It’s time to be thankful for what I have, and not push so damn hard for what I want. It’s time to remember that living happily in the present is more important than putting all your effort into trying to shape the future.

Otherwise, you might not hear the joke.