"Yehoshua, get up off the floor! If you can't sit nicely at the table, go to bed. Mendy, put down that book! It's a long enough night, and you won't have anything to read later. Miri, leave your sister alone! Raizy, why did you take so much chicken if you knew you couldn't eat it all? No, Baruch, you can't have anymore grape juice. Shua, off the floor!"
Well, I did volunteer for the task. With their parents out for Friday night, I was presiding over chaos. In under five minutes, the prettily set table had morphed into a mess of purple splatters and soggy napkins. I'm sure my hair was standing on end, with a few bits of shnitzel stuck in there.
As the youngest, my memories of Shabbos meals were tame; all of us sitting properly around the dining room table. Yet Ma tells me that before my time, she would tell Babi, "Ma, it's a three-ring circus."
We sing bensching together (with Mendy barely mumbling along, much to my displeasure). With an hour until bedtime, I whipped out the stack of Berenstain Bears I had brought with me.
The hysteria immediately vanished into peace. Each (even the 12-year-old) eagerly selected one. I read out loud, surrounded by cuddling children all sighing contentedly. This was the scene more apropos to the serenity of Shabbos.
After tucking the smaller ones into bed, I played cards with the older ones. I lost "I Doubt You" ungracefully. I thought I had a better poker face.
The night closed pleasantly, despite the mad opening.
We are creatures of habit and minhag. Shabbos meals are supposed to be calm and enjoyable. Yet when kids are too young to handle the expectations of the dining room table, maybe the method needs a little tweaking.
If a formal dinner will devolve into (1) shouting matches of "But I wanna sit next to Abba!"; (2) Grabbing for the kois until it inevitably spills; (3) food battles; (4) really, really unnecessary stress, let's take the munchkins out of it until they are of an age of self-control and interest.
They can be fed earlier, left to play or put to sleep (depending on the season), while Mom and Pop revel in a romantic dinner for two by candlelight.