I've been cooking dinner for my family for over ten years now. This is supposed to be a good thing for all of us. Studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse show family dinners are a great way to stay connected with your kids. Regular family dinners correlate with better grades, less drug and alcohol abuse, and healthier bodies.
I agree with the research. I love making dinner every night. I strongly believe that our family dinners are a good thing. But...I have a problem. In my head, we all sit down, enjoy a healthy meal, chat about our day, and enjoy our time together. In the real world? More often than I would like, we sit down to dinner, and this happens...
So, who wants to tell us about their day?
(Pokes at food) Can I please be excused?
I do not LIKE THIS FOOD. Hmf.
No, you can't leave the table until everyone tells us about their day. Natalie, why don't you start. How was your day?
Meepo. Meepo. Meepo. Meepo!
Naaataaalie, stop that!
Natalie, please stop. That's annoying.
Can you tell us about your day?
(Getting exasperated) Natalie, Mom asked you a question. How was your day?
Awful? Was it really that ba...
Ben wouldn't let me use the computer! He kept pushing me off and playing his games!
I did not!
Well, you hit me!
HEY! THAT'S ENOUGH YOU TWO!
I do not want this. May I please be excused?
Yes, even for DadCooksDinner, family dinner has accusations, threats, and whining. But what I find even worse is this:
So, what did you learn in school today?
As they read this, my parents are laughing so hard that tears are rolling down their cheeks. One word answers? Payback. It's the "May your children grow up to be just like you" curse. I was the king of one word answers when I was a kid. (How was your day? Fine. What did you do today? Nothing. Did anything interesting happen? Shrug.) My goal was just to get away from the table as quickly as possible. And, usually, my kids have the same reaction. Dinner seems to be a hassle to them, something that gets in the way of interesting stuff, like the TV, the Wii, the computer, and their friends.
This has been one of my biggest frustrations with dinner. How do I get the kids to open up and talk? How do I get them to stop bickering? And, maybe more important, how do I stop lecturing at them? I want family dinners to be something my children look forward to, not something they endure. Occasionally, we catch lightning in a bottle, and a topic catches their interest. Usually, we are met with silence, short answers, or (sometimes even worse) long rambling accounts of how their lives would not be complete without some new video game. *We had to make a rule - no talking about video games at the table.
I was stumped, until I came across the same great idea in a pair of books. I first stumbled across it in Steve and Annette Economides's Cut Your Grocery Bill In Half, and then in Laurie David's The Family Dinner. Both books said that you have to plan what you will talk about. Don't expect kids to be brilliant conversationalists out of the blue. (Especially if you aren't one yourself. Ahem.) Use a topic of the day to get the conversation going!
This was a light-bulb moment for me. Or, maybe, more of a "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?" moment.
Both books have lists of fun questions you can ask to start conversations. Here are my top five topics from these books that have worked at our table:
- What I like about you is...(Pick a person, go around the table, and say something nice about them. Then move to the next person at the table.)
- What are you grateful for this week?
- What was the best thing that happened to you this week, and the worst?
- If you could go anywhere for vacation, where would it be?
- What is the bravest thing you've ever done?
Fun is important. One of the books talked about the question: "How was your day?". From a kid's perspective, this isn't a question, it's a trap. Give the wrong answer, get a lecture. "You need to improve your study habits, be nice to your brother and sister, and get a better group of friends." No wonder the day was fine, with no details!
*And I have to confess...I'm terrible about this. I love my kids, and want to make everything better. The moment they tell me about a problem I try to "fix" it. Unfortunately, that usually results in me lecturing at them. Part of what I learned is I'm as guilty as the kids are.
Here are our ground rules, which are still evolving:
- No interrupting! Listen to whoever is talking. Passing an item around to designate who gets to talk is a great idea. We go with "Spanky", the huge wooden cooking paddle from Michael Ruhlman. That way, I get to say "Don't make me use Spanky!", and they start giggling.
- Respect the person and their answer. You can ask questions (when they're done talking, see #1), but no making fun of answers. No "that's dumb", no "what kind of an answer is that". This is a chance to practice good manners.
- One conversation. This is related to both interrupting and respect. When the conversation is flowing well, sometimes it splits, and it helps to bring things back together.
The downside to table topics: I have to be prepared! Coming up with an age appropriate, neutral topic can be difficult. Sometimes I get caught and don't have a topic for discussion. Then I ask for suggestions from the kids. So far, someone has always come up with a good one.
*Economides recommends having topics on cards, so you can pick a card when you're out of ideas. I want to check out these Table Topics question cards for exactly that reason.
Another good idea from both books: the topic of the day doesn't have to be a question. Mix in some games or quizzes. David likes to have a book of obscure words nearby, to see if the kids can spell and define them. The Economides family would do Mad Libs as a group activity - someone would ask for the parts of speech, fill them in, and then read the results to the table.
*So far, our favorite game was "My friend doesn't like P's. What can you give her to eat?". The trick is, she won't eat anything with the letter P in it, not peas. (My friend loves bananas, but hates peaches.) Each person names a food for my friend to eat; if the answer has a P in it, she doesn't want it. Tell them they have to figure out the connection in what she doesn't like, and keep going around the table until someone figures it out. Then, play an elimination round - each person gets five seconds to answer, and if the answer has a P in it, they're out.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because Topic of the Day has been a huge success. Yes, the kids groan when I say "Time for the topic of the day!" But they always participate, and our family dinner conversations are much more relaxed and free-flowing. Isn't that what time together should be about?
What do you think? Any other family dinner suggestions? What do you do to make everyone want to come to the table? Any topics you love to talk about? Leave them in the comments section below.
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