At dinner last night the children wanted to know why they had to eat their brocolli. I explained that brocolli is high in iron, amongst other things, which was needed to strengthen their blood. This led to a discussion with Prima, Secundo and Tercero (aged 7, 5 and 2) about our circulatory system and I told them what my father told me as a child (over dinner): Arteries – blood away from the heart, Veins – blood towards the heart. I was just about to launch into the four chambers of the heart, when husband interrupted to ask whether this was really appropriate dinnertime conversation with children. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be.
The dinnertime of my childhood involved discussions about the usual – ruffle skirts, Knight Rider and A-ha; as well as what is apparently unusual:
- human anatomy, using the old Gray’s Anatomy, which is just like the new Grey’s Anatomy but without the sex or random shootings. Really. My father taught us all the systems of the body except the reproductive system which he skipped out of shyness. Despite bearing four children I still don’t know much about my uterus or its other related parts which I am not allowed to mention;
- world religions, their common values and the importance of religious tolerance in an increasingly divided world, especially in the current and historic context of the use and abuse of religious rhetoric to inflame bigotry (we were slow eaters and a lot of ground was covered);
- David Attenborough documentaries and home videos of my father using the latest equipment and techniques in neurosurgery. According to husband, 5 year olds are supposed to know the names of the Wiggles, not the lobes of the brain.
I suppose it was a little unusual. When my brother and I were 4 and 7, a patient (who was also a farmer) gave my father a dead goat as a gift for saving his life. Most fathers might quietly dispose of it, but our’s dissected it on the washing machine, explaining all of the systems of the body whilst my brother and I watched in awe. My mother naturally curried the goat after the post-mortem but unfortunately I was not allowed to take its brain to school for Show and Tell.
Since we (the Duckformation family) had been living with my parents in Canberra for the past year, Appa had been teaching our children the same religious beliefs (whilst trying to explain polar magnetism to a 5 year old). My father struggles to play Guess Who with the little ducklings. Connect Four is even worse. He can’t help but try to correct them and beat them at the same time, whilst some how demonstrating that all of life’s lessons (including how to win at Connect Four) can be found in the Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of Sai Baba.
History at dinnertime, through the eyes of my father often focused on the greatness of Eastern civilisations (in particular our own). I bet you didn’t know that some of humanity’s greatest disciplines – philosophy, medicine, physics, astronomy, yoga, meditation and cricket (yes cricket) – all originated on the Indian Sub-continent. According to Appa, even Jesus Christ, a man/Messiah who could be said to have shaped geo-politics like no other, went to India during his missing years in the wilderness. In his time there, he apparently met Hindu scholars and grew facial hair that could best any Indian male.
As a child this approach to knowledge and perspective on the world used to annoy me. As the bearer of children, I am grateful for these obscure and strangely-timed discussions about religion, history and physics.
As I said, it was an unusual upbringing but it’s the only upbringing I’ve had and I love it now. I don’t know much about parenting and I know that I suck at dinnertime conversation (it’s a wonder husband ever asked me out for a second date), but I do know something about religion (or at least religious tolerance), subdural haematomas, the anatomy of a goat and how to approach a male gorilla in a non-threatening manner (you should see David Attenborough do this, it is amazing).
Secundo was sick recently and instead of letting him rest in front of 12 hours of Pixar films, I insisted that we read from The Times’ Complete History of the World. I found myself telling Secundo that whilst The Times thought that the existence of Indus Valley pottery in other parts of the world was due to trade, I thought it was completely plausible that the Indus Valley civilisation (which pre-dates most other known civilisations) had actually explored the world, taking the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita with them. It was at that point that I knew my indoctrination was complete, my father would be proud and my children will need remedial history lessons (or remedial parenting) in due course.