The family who plays together ...

It was one of those ideas that are, perhaps, better in theory than in practice. Or better in commercials than in reality. Still, the thought of gathering weekly around the table with my children to share some popcorn, conversation, and good old-fashioned competition was so appealing that I was determined to incorporate it into my family's routine. (That is, if you can call refereeing three boys through dinner, homework, bathtime, and bed a routine.)

"We're going to have a family game night every week," I announced to the boys over homework one night. They dropped their pencils and looked at me suspiciously. "Do we win prizes?" Max wondered.

"Can I invite my friends?" Sean asked.

"Do we have to?" Steven moaned.

But they began to get into the spirit of the thing and chose Thursday as our night.

"Remember to do your homework as soon as you get home," I told the boys the next Thursday. "Tonight's family game night." We ordered Chinese food and settled in around the table to play "Clue."

Of course, this wasn't the "Clue" I knew while growing up, the one with Miss Scarlett and the lead pipe in the Conservatory.

No, this was "Simpsons Clue," and the suspects, weapons, and locations were related to Springfield's favorite family.

"I want to be Bart!" my younger two sons chimed simultaneously, then glared at each other.

Sean grabbed the pewter figurine off the board. "I'm Bart! I got him first!" he gloated.

"I'm not playing!" Max pouted, and then threw a pewter weapon - in this case, the "poisoned doughnut" - in Sean's direction.

This was not going well.

Once the boys settled down, they enjoyed, briefly, making the rounds of the various rooms, joking about the Frying Dutchman, and hitting one another's little tokens over the head with the tiny pewter saxophone. But by the time the solution was finally announced - "It was Marge with the slingshot in Barney's Bowl-a-Rama" - they had enough.

"How do we win?" Sean questioned.

"Well, you figure out who killed Montgomery Burns, what weapon was used, and where the murder took place," I explained.

"But then what happens?" he demanded.

"You check the file to see if you're right."

"But then what happens?"

Apparently, I wasn't comprehending.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, after Steve Austin pins X-Pac, he gets a gold belt," Sean pointed out. "What do we get?"

I considered telling him that he gets the pleasure of spending an evening with his family, the opportunity to bond with his brothers, the joy of sharing a game and some conversation with the people who care most about him. I thought about explaining that childhood was short, and that the real prize was the time we were giving to each other.

I started to tell him all that, but he was already headed toward his bedroom, so I yelled out: "Eh, the guy who wins gets the fast food of his choice next Thursday?"

"OK," he nodded, and gave me a kiss. "I can't wait."

So maybe it's not a gold belt. Maybe the Moo Goo pork landed on the floor and the cat ate the poisoned doughnut. Maybe life doesn't always come out the way it plays in commercials. Maybe, instead of a freckle- faced boy playing a polite card game, you get Bart and Krusty in the kitchen with the egg roll.

And, just maybe, I wouldn't want it any other way.

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