Q: "Every Thanksgiving I've knocked myself out, but the children (7, 10 and 12) still want to race through the meal almost as if it were an everyday supper. And every year it makes me mad.

"Even though it's just the five of us, I iron a tablecloth, cook a turkey and some pies and probably spend two days shining and shopping and cooking to put on the big American spread. Sometimes I think I might as well serve hamburgers in the kitchen.

"Does it have to be this way?"

A. Special dinners can get special treatment, but only when you remember that every meal is a time for Thanksgiving, especially for a family. No matter how simple the food, there is no such thing as an everyday supper. When a family breaks bread together it is the most primitive -- and the most important -- part of the day.

Families today come in more shapes and sizes than ever, with two parents or one, with benefit of clergy or without. But whatever the unit, it is still a family, and the more stable it is and the more traditions there are, the more the children will thrive. You can make the holidays and birthdays fancier, but children can't live up to them unless they've had practice.

Now is a good time to start.

After a recent speech someone asked, "If you would have your family all over again, what would you do differently?" My answer surprised everyone, including myself:

"Have a blessing before dinner."

Whether you have a moment of silence, say a prayer, or just count your blessings, a family needs to stop, join hands and become one. It is that circle of unity that reminds a child that he is never alone.

Another advantage: The children can't eat until everyone is served.

Civility and good manners are part of the practice, and they're easier to come by when parents remember that a table with children can never be perfect. If you're going to correct every mistake, you will only shut out the mistakers.

Some people might call this a lowering of standards (and some people would be right), but children need this understanding to feel safe, so they can wind down, take stock of their day and share it with the people they love most. By putting up with a little rowdiness and confusion, your children will want to linger at the table every night, although still not as long as you might want on a high holiday.

For this, they have to feel responsible for at least some of the meal, for this is where the festivity comes from. Magic is a community effort, and magic is what you get when everyone works together.

A 7-year-old, and certainly children of 10 and 12, are not only old enough to polish silver, wax the table and arrange the flowers, but they can make the cranberry sauce, roast the pecans, string and stuff the celery, make pumpkin, mince or pecan pies (although you may want to make the pastry) and also help mix the stuffing and baste the bird.

Whatever jobs your children choose, they should be ones that bring a lot of compliments, which leaves the boiled onions to you.

Thanksgiving will go more smoothly for children if you plan to have several courses, but in a relaxed way. The first can be served standing around in the living room, for children simply can't sit still as long as you can. Raw vegetables with a dip make a nice walking salad, and shrimp, if you can afford the price, make an elegant cocktail.

Everyone sits down for the carving of the turkey, followed by the blessing or personal meditation. This is another ritual that can be changed on this holiday.

In one big family I know, each member gives thanks aloud, round robin, for whatever has made him happiest the last year. Once, among the announcements of loves and births and successes, the smallest one solemnly said, "I'm thankful because I didn't throw up all year."

May you have such a memorable quote.

And when this course is done and the children have cleared it -- stop awhile. Take a family walk, or let the children play some Frisbee. A fancy meal isn't an endurance contest, and if it is, a child can't win.

To make sure the children are lured back to dessert -- if a lure is needed -- warm and flame a little brandy on the mincement pie. Children wouldn't miss that scene for anything.

One more thing: You say there will be five of you at dinner, but on this, of all days, you need to share your good luck, and your table, with others -- friends, lonely college students or those from overseas -- who have no family in town.

Thanksgiving should remind children that they also belong to the family of man, and that's one more thing to be thankful about.