We have a Family Night every Thursday. It's a great idea. Children and parents are supposed to sit down as equals and air their gripes. Ours are a little young for it, ages 8, 5 and 2, but we figured if at this stage we can get them to talk about using each other's toothbrushes and whose pancake was bigger, they'd feel comfy about discussing acne, mating urges and other troubling matters when they got older.

If it worked, it'd be a scene right out of "Little House on the Prairie."

The first Family Night exceeded our expectations. When we asked if there was anything bugging anybody, our oldest son almost knocked over his milk in his eagerness to be recognized.

"I think Mom has been real crabby lately," he volunteered. I thanked him for his frankness and told him I'd work on it. My second son said he didn't want to eat his potatoes, and would he get his cake anyway? The baby smeared banana in his hair.

At the next 27 meetings, my oldest son complained that I had been real crabby lately. Through increasingly more clenched teeth, I told him I'd work on it.

Urgent family matters surfaced and were dealt with democratically. The kids proposed having the right to change their underwear when they felt like it. We vetoed. The kids proposed eliminating household chores because of the burden this kind of work puts on their free time. We vetoed. The kids proposed banning vegetables at dinner because they cause fights. We vetoed.

We were all learning a lot about how democracy works.

"I'm mad because we don't have a dog," my middle son complained.

"But we keep giving you little human beings," I offered.


"Because," I answered evenly, "they don't bark, leave droppings in our neighbor's yard, terrorize the UPS man or sniff our guests."

"But Mom, I swear I'll clean up after the dog. I'll feed him, take him for walks. He'll be my pal. He'll be my protection when you leave me with mean babysitters. Please, Mom, I want a dog--we don't need any more babies!"

"You're too late, kid."

"I really need a new bike." This from middle son again.

"Your bike is still in great condition. What makes you think you need a new one?" asked his father.

"My bike has an apple seat. Bikes with banana seats are more cool." His dad delivered an inspirational little sermon about money not growing on trees, and he told a dear little story beginning, "When I was a boy," and ending with, "What do you think I am--made of money?"

Our son: "Dad, I'll give you all of the money in my bank, and Kevin will give you all the money in his bank."

"Why would Kevin want to do that?"

"So I wouldn't be bugging him all the time to ride his bike."

On another evening my oldest son claimed the floor first again.

"Mom, I don't like it when you yell at me in front of my friends."

I was ready to weep with gratitude. This was the first variation on the "Mom-is-a-crab" theme that we had heard in 27 weeks.

"Of course you don't, dear," I oozed. "And exactly when was it that I did this?"

"You remember that night when Billy was spending the night? You really blew up. I was really embarrassed."

"You mean the night you unlocked my bedroom door, and brought your 10-year-old friend in as I was picking through my dresser drawers in my birthday suit? You were lucky you only got yelled at--the first three things I considered doing to you I could be jailed for."

On a more recent Family Night:

"Why don't we get money for the ice cream truck?"

All three were united on this attack.

"I feel the people behind these trucks are a corrupter of American youth." I smiled thinly. I was definitely losing it.

"Whaddya mean?" they cried.

"How else am I to explain," I began, "how a single clanging bell can turn a perfectly reasonable child into a screaming, stomping, pleading, sniveling rag of humanity? I mean, that bell goes off, and the entire short population around here decomposes. Kids are willing to do absolutely anything for the price of an ice bomb."

I was getting a little flushed.

"Where is our CIA when we need them? Out snooping in the bushes for the Communists? To heck with the Commies." I was standing now. "I tell you it's the ice-cream truck drivers who are controlling our youth today!"

"She's hogging the floor again, Dad."

We are thinking of giving up Family Night. My husband is developing colitis from suppressing anger while the kids share their innermost feelings. And not that I haven't enjoyed it. But tonight when one of my sons asked why our two neighbors had babies and got skinny, and I didn't--well it's sort of like getting mugged in your own home.

With any luck, if we make a clean break now, they won't remember any of it when they grow up.