Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By the time our children are of school age, we take their talk for granted. We have turned all our attention to their reading and writing, not realizing that talk is still the motor that drives their intellectual development.
–from Raising Lifelong Learners by Lucy Calkins

One of my favorite things about dadding this family is the five-way dinner conversation. Becca and I recently realized how rare it is that the five of us are NOT together for dinner — maybe half a dozen times a year, if that. I don’t think having dinner together is the magic bullet so many soc-sci pundits currently make it out to be — more likely a co-variable for some other good things — but it is, without a doubt, the best possible opportunity to talk. And boy do we.

As Lucy Calkins points out in her fabulous, simple, sensible book Raising Lifelong Learners,

Just sitting at the table to share a family dinner in no way guarantees shared conversation. Frequently the rule, unspoken or not, is that adults talk only to each other. Children are expected to carry on their own separate conversation or to just be quiet. It makes all the difference in the world if children and parents expect that conversations will be shared. This means that when I talk with my husband about my work at Teachers College, one of my sons will invariably interrupt with questions. “What do you mean the cost of benefits is going up? What are benefits?”

This happens in our family all the time, but it wasn’t until Calkins drew my attention to it that it registered as something special. Our family conversations are completely integrated, which gives the kids access to topics they’d otherwise never intersect. It surely helps them see themselves as more actively connected to the world around them. Sure, Becca and I have our private conversations, but we either remove ourselves from the throng or just raise a finger at the first question and say, “This is Mom and Dad’s time.” More often, though, they are welcome to listen in, and find themselves privy to many topics that adults might often think would be uninteresting to them.

So I love our dinner talk. You never know where it’ll start or go. One of the five of us will throw a topic in the air like a jump ball and all the rest leap at it. It’s fantastic. I just adore it. I’ve written before about breaking down walls between domains of knowledge for kids — like our family’s “open shelf policy” — and our dinner table is a good example. No separate adult and kid conversations. Everybody’s in, age 6 to 45.

In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease notes that the average American adult spends 6 hours a week shopping and 30 hours a week (!) watching television, but one-on-one conversation in homes between parents and their school-age kids averages less than ten minutes per parent per day.

Calkins points to oral language as the foundation of all literacy, and conversation in the home as the best possible catalyst for its development. Don’t look to school to develop it — as researcher Gordon Wells learned, kids engage in even less conversation with an adult in a given school day than at home, and what interactions there are tend to be narrow and scripted. Most of the time, teachers (for understandable reasons) are trying to get kids to STOP talking.

Last night it started with reggae. I decided we really need some around the house. Erin asked what it sounds like, and I did a few bars of Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” That led to Bob Marley, then to the Rastafari movement and the whole extremely weird Haile Selassie connection, which, if you don’t know about it, enjoy. Connor mentioned dreadlocks, then asked if Marley was still alive.

“No,” I said. “He died when he was 36.”

“What from?”

“Cancer,” I said, “sort of.” He really died of religion, but why go there.

“How can you sort of die of cancer!”

“Well…” Oh fine. “A cancer developed in his toe. He could have had the toe amputated and been fine. But Rastafarians believe you should never cut a part of your body away, or you give up eternal life. So he refused the surgery, and the cancer spread to his brain and liver and killed him.”

We chewed on that in silence for awhile, then Becca said something about an article she read yesterday about steroids in sports.

“That’s the drug that made that wrestler-guy kill his family, isn’t it?” Connor asked.

“Oh. Chris Benoit,” I said. Turns out it wasn’t actually steroids, though they thought that at first. Severely brain-damaged from years of concussions, Benoit killed his wife and son and hanged himself, not 40 miles from here. Becca explained that his head injuries from wrestling had made his brain stop working right, which made him do this terrible thing.

Now some might reasonably flinch at cancer, amputation, performance-enhancing drugs, murder, and suicide as dinnertime chat for children. It’s just as often puppies and butterflies, I promise. But on this particular night, we wandered into some unusually dark spaces. My kids will ride any conversational wave that comes along, and I think their worldview and points of reference will be all the more rich and diverse for it.

So where were we? Oh yeah — Chris Benoit going crazy and killing his family.

Suddenly, six-year-old Delaney’s eyes widened, and she burst out, “HEY! That’s just like that hero!!”

“What?” I said. “What hero?”

“The hero! In the myth! Hercules! The one who killed his wife and children because the goddess put madness in his mind.”

For ten full seconds I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I remembered: About a month ago, we read a strange episode in the life of Hercules, one I always forget about. Juno, queen of the gods and wife of Jupiter, always hated Hercules, the offspring of one of Jupiter’s affairs. So she placed a temporary madness in the mind of Hercules, during which he killed his family. He was horrified and spent the rest of his life in search of repentance.

I showered her with my amazement. She had made a connection between a Roman myth and current events — not the first time she’s made that sort of link.

I can’t wait to see what’s for supper tonight.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.