I'm a lifelong Anglophile, and it's always saddened me a little bit that we Yankees have never caught the British habit of Taking Tea. Today I realized that those of us who are lucky enough to have children do have an identical ceremony, we just call it something else: The After-School Snack.
Many societies have a tradition of taking a small period of refreshment in mid-afternoon. The Japanese raised tea to an art form, with special buildings and dishes and ceremonies to make just the right background for their daily sip. Perhaps it is one of Mankind's earliest needs, right after Find Dry Cave and Avoid Being Eaten by Mammoth; the yearning to stop what we're doing at about 4 o'clock, sit and eat a bit of something tempting, have a refreshing drink and chat with our companions for a little while.
On the other hand, perhaps the introduction of Tea Time is what marked the evolution of Primitive Man to Civilized Man.
Whatever its origins, the after-school snack is sacred at our house. This ritual gives parents and children time to reconnect, a chance to “download” the highlights of the day so far before the homework/chores/dinner prep rush begins. I am of the firm belief that no one should ever enter our home without a warm greeting, just as no one should ever leave without a "goodbye," and a hug and kiss if appropriate. The reality of this is obvious when the kids come through the door: they drop their coats and heavy backpacks, perch on a kitchen stool and heave sighs of relief.
Don't get me wrong, my kitchen is not the scene of a 1950's sitcom every single weekday after school. Sometimes the kids have “activities,” and sometimes I do; sometimes a friend will come home with them or they might go visiting. More often than not, though, I'll be there waiting for them with something to drink and something to nibble. They know they can count on that.
What you serve doesn't really matter. I often make cookies (today it's coconut macaroons, which could not be easier or more delicious), but we also have fruit, or nuts, or popcorn, or veggies and dip. Usually on April Fool's Day I make some elaborate type of “hoax” food that looks like something else. We may drink milk, or cider, or juice, or hot chocolate or even (believe it or not!) tea.
If you're at work when your kids get home from school, leave a snack ready for them. Add a note, or make a point of calling at that time every day to check in. If the hour after school is a rush of soccer practice and violin lessons, put a box of raisins and a bottle of orange juice on your kid's car seat. If you'll be gone on business, leave a few brown bags behind you; slip a box of crackers, a package of cookies, or some dried fruit into each bag along with the appropriate number of juice boxes, staple each bag shut and number the bags – a snack for each day you'll be gone.
After-School Snack Time has changed subtly since Joy's first day of preschool. When the kids were little, it was a chance for them to have my undivided attention for a bit; a chance for them to tell me all their news before they burst. Now that Sassy and Jack are high school upperclassmen, these few minutes a day may be the only ones during which I get to have their undivided attention. It's a cherished moment in our hectic day, a dependable oasis of time to concentrate on each other.
As Henry James said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Clever people, the English.