You’ve just put the finishing touches on supper. It’s nutritious, delicious, and artistically presented in attractive dishes. Your spouse and all the kids are ready to share another wonderful family meal. You know how important family meals are, after all, and you want the best for your children. So, you sit down to dinner ready for wonderful conversation and family bonding time.
“So Johnny, how was school today?” You ask your son brightly.
“Ok.” Johnny says, shoveling another mouthful of mashed potatoes into his face.
Not a very interesting answer, but you try to take comfort in the fact that at least he obviously likes the meal you prepared.
“How did your classes go, Jenny?” You ask your teenage daughter.
“I have a paper due tomorrow. Can I go?”
You nod, sighing internally.
Finally, you turn to your husband. “How was work?”
“It was fine.” He says. “Can you pass the salt?”
“Mom,” your younger daughter interrupts, just as you’re about to pick up the salt. “Johnny just kicked me under the table. Can you make him stop?”
You sigh… family dinners are supposed to be great bonding time…after all, studies show that more family dinners means healthier, more successful, happier children and teens. But aside from good healthy home cooked food, what really makes or breaks the family dinner is the conversation that goes with it. If the conversation goes well, you will likely have a happy family experience overall. If the conversation is a disaster, you likely have other problems in your family.
Here are five tips that should make your family meal conversations more satisfying and enjoyable.
Ask open ended questions
Yes or no questions are good for some things, but dinner conversation is not one of them. If you want to get a conversation going, you have to ask a question that requires your conversation partner to bring some information to the table. If you ask, “How was school today?” “Fine” is a perfectly legitimate answer, but it gives you nothing to talk about.
Instead of asking how school went, or if it was ok, try asking questions like, “What was something interesting that happened at school/work/home today?” Then your conversation partner has to actually introduce some information into the conversation.
Ask followup questions
You sit down to dinner. “Johnny, what was something interesting that happened at school today?”
“We played a new game at recess.” Johnny says.
“That’s interesting.” You say…and the conversation dies.
Conversation is like a game of tennis. You serve the ball to get in into play–this is like the preliminary question. Your partner returns it, by adding something new. And you need to return it again, once again by adding something of your own, or by asking a follow up question.
If Johnny tells you he played a new game at recess, you should ask, “What game was it?”
Then, when he tells you what game it is, you now have a real topic of conversation. Your whole family could get involved. You could share stories of when you played that game, discuss the rules, and eventually end up going on glorious tangents about ball manufacture, game theory, and the Olympics… which brings me to the next tip.
Bring up interesting topics.
You are probably very busy, but try to spend at least a few minutes each week learning or doing something interesting just so that you can share it with your family and broaden your and their horizons a little. I think most of what I learned as a child, and much of my joy in learning, came from conversations around the dining room table. My parents read, my brother read, I read; and we discussed all of it over our meals. We almost always had something new and interesting to talk about.
It doesn’t really matter what the topic is–as long as you are interested in it, you can probably get your family interested too… with a few exceptions.
Avoid depressing topics.
Many families have some topics that are banned for discussion during meals. Common forbidden topics include snakes, worms, and anything gross or gory. Besides your own family’s forbidden topics, I would suggest avoiding any topic that is likely to result in a sense of hopelessness or fear. This would include conspiracy theories, the end of the world, the three days of darkness, and probably about half of what was in the latest newspaper…
Conspiracy theories are sort of fun–you get a perverse sort of thrill from discussing how “they” –depending on your political affiliation and interests, “they” might stand for the Illuminati, Big Business, The Government, the Communists, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Left, the Right, the Far Left, or the Far Right–are controlling everything, and have been controlling everything for the last few decades/centuries. Discussing conspiracy theories gives you the feeling that you are special, you are not deceived like the rest of men, you have the secret knowledge that will make you powerful–except that in practice it does nothing but make you fearful and hopeless.
If “they,” whoever they might be, really have as much power as your theory says they do, then there isn’t really much point in trying to make the world a better place–and that is the message your children will imbibe with their spaghetti and meatballs.
It is good to discuss politics and history and sociology with your family. But these conversations will form your child’s world view possibly more than anything else, and so be sure that the world you show them is the one you want them to see.
Any since it is important to discuss different topics, it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, which brings me to my last point.
Practice good manners
Talking to people is one of the most important skills you can teach your children. And being polite is a vital part of that skill. So a few ground rules are in order. Here’s a sample list of rules that will help your conversations stay respectful and enjoyable.
- Listen to the other person’s full thought before answering.
- Swallow before talking.
- Make sure other people get a turn to talk.
- Stay on topic, unless everyone is okay with changing the subject.
- If you disagree, respectfully explain your reasons for disagreeing, rather than insulting the other person.
- Keep voices at an appropriate indoor volume.
Hopefully these five tips will give you what you need to make meal time with your family a relaxing and stimulating experience.