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Week 3: Family Mealtimes

Communcating at the Dinner Table

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"Good." "Fine." "OK."

Are these the words you generally hear from your children in response to questions at the dinner table? If so, you have a lot in common with many families and fathers. Getting kids to talk to their parents in meaningful ways is almost an art form. And, at least in our family, it was hard to get our kids to stop at all between mouthfuls.

But talking at the dinner table is an important part of family life. These kinds of moments not only build relationships, but research suggests that family dinner conversations have a lot to do with building language skills and the ability to think critically.

In talking to dads and other family experts about this topic, I have tried to identify some questions or comments that, when used, can be the start of some memorable family conversations. Admittedly, some may be a little "off the wall," particularly if you are just starting the effort at having good mealtime family discussions. But perhaps they will spark some ideas of your own that would work well with your family and its personality.

"How about those 49'ers?" Particularly if you have sons interested in sports, talking about various sports teams and their performance can start some great conversations.

"What were the highs and lows of your day, today?" Rather than just a quick summary of the day's activities, a question like this focuses on evaluating and offering opinions about the day. Other variations might be "What was the best (or worst) thing that happened to you today?" or "If you were writing a newspaper article about your day, what would be the headline?"

"The word of the day is enthrall." One dad I talked to had a "word of the day" that he introduced at dinner time, defined and then asked his children to use the following day in a conversation, school class or other setting. They then reported at dinner the next night before receiving a brand new word of the day. The New York Times has a word of the day website where you can get ideas.

"What is your favorite movie or book and why?" Here is an opportunity to share opinions and defend them in a non-threatening setting. And other family members often are willing to chime in with their opinions. We tried this recently, and my 15 year old talked for at least 30 minutes about his recent read, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians.

"What is the most important thing in being a good friend?" Questions like this help children explore values and mine life's experiences for meaning. Related questions might include "What do you think makes a person successful?" or "If you were a billionaire, what would you do with all your money?"

"Does our family seem too busy? What should we change to be less so?" Questions that ask for feedback on family lifestyle open some doors to meaningful conversation. It is a good opportunity to assess how we are doing as a family unit and what might need to be different.

"If you could invite three famous people to dinner, who would they be and what would you want to talk about?" Here is another question that gets at personality, priorities and interests without seeming to pry or be too curious. Questions that get children (and adults) to think less superficially will often start great conversations.

"If you were running for mayor (or president, etc.), what would be your campaign platform?" Lots of families like to discuss current events around the dinner table. Questions like this one tend to get right to the root of current issues in your community, nation and world. One word of caution: while some families like to debate issues at the dinner table, some family members who are more shy may feel intimidated. Don't let the conversation turn into something that excludes or offends other family members.

What to do differently this week:

  • Set aside at least one more evening this week than last week to have dinner together
  • Identify and use one idea to make the mealtime more fun
  • Ask at least two questions this week that you usually don't ask at the dinner table
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