You just worked a full day, rushed home to make dinner, sit down to eat with your family and open with this showstopper: “How was school today?”
A popular answer to this question is, “K,” or perhaps you’re familiar with: “It was fine,” or “Good.”
Or even worse, an answer doesn’t come. Just your child, staring at their phone.
While you’re struggling to make a meaningful connection with your children – fighting the persistence of social media and text messages from their friends — it may be as simple as changing up your dinner chat.
According to The Family Dinner Project, an initiative spearheaded by two women at Harvard University, research has shown over the past 20 years that “sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members.”
Importance of conversation
Recent studies link those regular meals to higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. They’re also connected to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression.
“Food is what brings everybody to the table, but it’s the other things that make it meaningful and enjoyable (and improve overall health),” said Bri DeRosa, who works on The Family Dinner Project. “Put simply, eating together regularly can make every member of the family happier and healthier. Plus, kids — even teenagers — say that they actually enjoy eating with their parents and want to do more of it. With food providing an opportunity for a captive audience, you can draw everyone to the table, and then make good use of that time to check in.”
But that “How was school?” question – it’s unlikely to get you the answer you’re searching for.
“‘How was school?’ is the kind of question that invites one-word answers, like “Fine” or “Good,” or the ever-popular ‘I don’t know,’” DeRosa said. “When faced with a barrage of those kinds of answers, parents often give up and say ‘They don’t want to talk to us!’ when in fact, the kids might be willing to open up if they knew how to get started. The more families talk to one another, the more trust is built; the more trust you build with your kids, the stronger your relationship will be.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, setting ground rules pertaining to dinnertime can not only ensure the meal goes smoothly, but it also creates a routine that is important for young children.
- When it’s time to eat, have the entire family sit down to eat. If an adult is up walking around, your children may be learning that walking around during dinner is OK.
- Remove all distractions. This includes TV, cell phones, tablets, or other things that take away from your child’s attention.
- If possible, try to have dinner at the same time each night and establish a routine before and after the meal.
Ideas for strong dinner conversation
Open-ended questions, creative questions, imaginative questions – the possibilities are endless. The best kinds of questions to help kids open up are ones that require more than one or two words to answer.
Instead of asking “How was your day,” De Rosa said, you can try, “What happened today that surprised you?” or “What’s one kind thing you did for someone else today?”
“The most important thing for families is to let go of the pressure to make things ‘perfect,’” DeRosa said. “Family dinner can be sandwiches eaten on the sidelines before soccer practice, or Friday night pizza on a picnic blanket in the living room. Whatever brings you all together and keeps people coming back for that connection is the best family dinner for you.”
Here are some ideas from The Family Dinner Project about how to get the conversation flowing over supper.
For younger kids: What is something you love that you would like to share with someone else?
For younger kids: What was the best gift you ever received?
- For 8-13 years old: Talk about a time when someone did something thoughtful for you. What was it? Then, talk about a time when you did something thoughtful for someone else. How did it make you and the other person feel?
- For 8-13 years old: What is a strength or gift you have that you could teach to others during the holiday season?
- For 8-13 years old: If you could give one present to the whole world, what would it be and why?
- For 14-100 years old: Think of a person in your family (living or not) who gave back to others. In what ways did he or she give to others? What could you do to be more like this person?
- For 14-100 years old: Save enough local newspapers that everybody can read a front page. Then, circle areas of need. How could you help – as individuals and as a family?
- For 14-100 years old: Do you think it’s more important to be kind or to be happy? Why? Discuss the importance of kindness and ways family members can display their kindness every day in small ways.
Alissa Scott is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She loves to go camping in the Adirondacks, DIY projects and her cat, Wednesday Addams.