Psychology professor and mother Anne K. Fishel offers suggestions on how to overcome dinner conversation challenges with your kids.
Home for Dinner (AMACOM Books, 2015), by Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., is in an invitation back to the table, with many practical tips, playful ideas and tasty recipes, plus a little science to explain the benefits beyond nutrition. Fishel combines insights from experts with experiences that show how sharing food has the power to heal and strengthen families and nourish children’s development and well-being. The following excerpt from Chapter 6, “Table Talk that Goes Beyond ‘How Was Your Day?’” gives you tips on deepening dinner conversation with your kids and managing conflict during mealtime.
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In most families, the bread and butter of dinnertime talk centers around the question, “How was your day?” In some families, this simple question opens the floodgates: Kids will talk about recess, or about a rebuke someone endured from a teacher, or about an intriguing moral dilemma that arose in class. But some kids will only respond with a one-word answer: “Okay.” In other families, one member grabs all the airtime and rattles off a string of anecdotes about what happened during the day; meanwhile, everyone else will be tapping toes, impatient to get a word in edgewise.
In this chapter, I give some suggestions about how to overcome these and other table talk challenges so that you can increase your family members’ desire to talk and also to listen to each other.
Even if you’re lucky enough to have family members who need little prompting to gush about their days, it can be interesting and fun to raise some other topics for discussion. A steady diet of “how was your day” questions can feel like eating the same meal night after night. So, like switching up the menu, it’s good to add some variety and surprise. Games can be used to extend the time families spend with each other and infuse table talk with a dollop of playfulness. Dinnertime is also an opportunity to talk about things that matter—items in the news or abstract issues that encourage family members to think about what they would do in a similar situation.
The dinner table is also the primary place that families tell stories about parents and previous generations, stories that transmit the idea that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves.
Sometimes getting your kids to participate in dinner conversation feels like a lost cause, but you’ll be surprised at how easy it becomes when you use some simple, but effective techniques.
Asking questions that elicit more than a one-word answer
Kids have many good reasons for answering their parents’ questions with one word. It could be that they’ve been answering questions all day and now want a break, or they’re so tired and hungry that one word is all they can muster, or they’ve got a lot on their minds and the question you’ve asked isn’t interesting enough to change their focus. They could also be upset about something and don’t want to share it, or they just plain don’t feel like talking but wouldn’t mind listening to you talk.
Of course, it’s impossible to know what’s going on if your child won’t tell you, and that’s the catch-22. Here are a few ideas that have worked with my children over the years, as well as with child patients of mine who are very prone to clamming up in a therapist’s office. I can’t guarantee that these ideas are foolproof or that each idea will work for every child every time. You know your child well enough to predict which, if any, of these approaches might help get the conversation flowing.
• Keep a “map” in your head of what you know transpired in your child’s day, and ask questions that demonstrate that you have been paying attention. In other words, ask a question that shows that the details of your child’s life matter enough for you to have remembered them. For example, “I know that today was your first art class. What was it like?” or “Did you have a chance to play ‘monkey in the middle’ again at recess like you did yesterday? Whom did you play with today?” (This notion of keeping an updated map is a good idea with fellow adults as well. I know I find it maddening if my husband forgets to ask me about a big presentation and starts a conversation with a clueless, “How was your day, hon?”)
• As your day rolls along, try collecting small stories that might interest or amuse your children, such as something mischievous the dog did during the day or a funny exchange with a coworker. Later, when you reunite with your child, you might start with a story of your own. Often, this kind of modeling helps gets the ball rolling, and it shows your child that you are offering something before asking for something.
• Ask questions that require only one-word answers but not necessarily just yes or no. For example, “What did you like better today, math or reading?” “Who was most fun to play with today? And then who?” Sometimes, kids realize that they are offering information anyway and decide to fill in more of the details.
• In graduate school I was taught a saying about how to make certain behaviors, like one-word answers, less attractive to patients. The saying is “Spit in the soup.” That means, by predicting that your child is going to do the very thing that you wish she wouldn’t, you lessen the appeal of her likely behavior—so it’s like soup that’s been spoiled by spitting in it. For example, you might say “Sally, I want to ask you about your day, and I know that you’re only going to want to give me a one-word answer, but that’s okay; that’s all I really expect right now.”
• Take a break from asking questions and instead wonder out loud about parts of your child’s day without asking anything. “At noon today I was thinking about you because I knew you were trying out for the school play, and I was hoping that all the rehearsing you did last night made you feel confident.” Then just be quiet, and see if your child adds on to what you’ve started.
And, then there’s the more direct approach. You can always ask your children to help you be better at having a conversation about their day. “I’m so excited to see you, and so interested in what you’ve been doing, what you’re learning, and who you’ve played with, but often you don’t seem to want to talk. Is there anything that makes it easier or harder for you to share some of your day with me?”
Your child might answer, “Yes, don’t ask me so many questions!” Then you can wonder aloud what she might not like about your questions. If you figure it out, you might be on your way to changing the conversation.
As my kids would certainly tell you, I can be a real pest when it comes to asking questions. My husband, a journalist, is no better. Since we both ask questions for a living, our kids have been interrogated, quizzed, and cross-examined within an inch of their lives. In my defense, I do try to ask a broad range of questions—some to get the facts, others that wonder about feelings, and still others to try to pivot around an issue by asking a question from a different perspective.
Some questions and responses are like oxygen, keeping the flame of conversation alive; others are sure to throw cold water on it. I’m sure I’ve thrown more than my share of cold-water on dinnertime discussions, but I aspire to be a human bellows. Here are some ways to keep a conversation alive.
Let’s consider this simple exchange—likely happening at dinner tables across the country—to compare the two different types of communication. A parent asks: What was the best thing that happened at school today?” The child responds: “Recess.”
Responses that shut down the conversation
• Negatively judging your child’s response. “Didn’t you learn anything in class today? Do you think school is all fun and games?”
• Persuading or cajoling your child to consider a different response. “Are you really sure that was the best thing about school today? I seem to remember that you were going to have a parent come in today to read a story; wasn’t that more fun than recess?”
• Making the response a problem. “Why were you so relieved to get away from class and into recess? Did something bad happen in class today?”
Questions that fan the flames of conversation
• Asking out of pure curiosity and conveying that you want to understand your child’s point of view. “Tell me more. What did you do? Whom did you play with?”
• Asking playful questions that introduce a different perspective. “If I had been a bee on the swing, what would I have seen?”
• Asking your child to compare two experiences. “How was recess today different from recess yesterday? Was there something that made it particularly fun today?”
• Asking questions that prompt your child to talk about his or her successes. “Did you do something during recess that you were particularly proud of or that you want to remember to do again?”
• Asking questions that shine light on what’s missing. If your child talks about feelings, you might ask: “What were you thinking about?” If your child talked about today, you could ask about tomorrow or yesterday.
• Inviting others into the conversation. “Recess makes me think of taking a break during the day. What kinds of breaks did others take during the day? What are your favorite ways to relax and recharge during the day?”
And don’t forget that you won’t be the only one generating questions. Children are question-asking engines. I’m sure you know this from your own experience, but to give you an idea of just how much kids enjoy asking questions, consider this 2007 study: A researcher analyzed more than 200 hours of recordings of four kids, between the ages of two and five, talking with their caregivers. On average, the kids asked one to three questions per minute, or about 75 per hour!
Sometimes it might be helpful to wonder out loud what it is you don’t know. For example, “I’m not sure I really understand Snapchat. Could you tell me about it?” By embracing ”not knowing,” you may come up with some of the best fan-flaming questions.
Once the talk starts flowing, conflict and fighting could erupt. Some families enjoy having animated discussions at the dinner table, airing out different political views or replaying an umpire’s call at last night’s ballgame. Jack, a middle-aged man, and one of three sons, reflected on his childhood dinners: “Fighting with Dad about the Vietnam War was a sport that we all looked forward to. We sharpened our wits at the table. My father made each of us feel that we were worthy opponents, and I liked that.”
Speaking in a forthright way about differing opinions can make family members feel that each person’s individuality is valued and that the table is a safe place to send up a challenge. But if you want to tone down the conflict at the table to make room for other types of conversations, here are some tips:
• Agree to keep off the table topics that usually result in a fight. It may be easier to discuss such issues as grades, curfew, and behavior problems after dinner—on a full stomach and once you’ve had a chance to reconnect.
• Go easy on teaching manners at the table. You have years to remedy behaviors like kids eating with their hands and blowing bubbles in their milk. But it’s hard for kids to relax when they’re constantly being corrected. And it’s not so easy for parents to enjoy dinnertime if they have to be constantly vigilant about their children’s manners. So focus on one priority at a time, and don’t let the enforcement of minding manners take over the dinner. You can, though, focus on the manners that help build respectful speaking and listening, like not speaking with your mouth full, or not talking over anyone. Those are manners that we can all try to improve, so kids won’t feel so singled out.
• Set some guidelines for conversation, if necessary, such as “Only one person can speak at a time” or “We’re not going to interrupt each other.” One large, talkative family has the rule that family members can talk only if they are holding a shell. When they are done speaking, the shell is passed to the next speaker.
• Complaining about the food is one of the greatest sources of conflict at the table. Nothing sours my mood more quickly than cooking a dinner that my sons don’t like. When they were young I circumvented this source of conflict by preparing a list of meals that everyone agreed to eat without bellyaching. From time to time I would update the list. Then I would know that they had signed off on any meal I was taking the time to prepare.
• Using technology at the table is another growing source of family tension. A 2012 survey found that there are two sets of standards at the dinner table.2 Parents use technology at the table at twice the rate that their children are allowed. In other words, what’s good for the goose isn’t so good for the gosling. Perhaps a starting point would be for parents and kids to agree on the rules. The rules might well be a no-technology policy at the table, so that face-to-face conversation is consistently valued. Other families might agree to use technology lightly but only to share content with fellow diners, not to text with absent parties.
• Managing “that’s not fair” complaints. Where there are siblings there are almost always complaints about fairness. My sons, who are two and a half years apart, could be best friends one minute and outraged with each other the next, at a perceived inequity. When complaints, of “he got more” rang out, I would try to remind them that fairness is about getting what you need rather than getting the same amount as your brother. As my husband used to say over and over, “It’s not equal, but it’s fair.”
Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids by Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. © Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books, 2015.