How to Get Your Kids to Talk at Dinner

jenny-rosenstrach-andy-ward

Our friends Jenny and Andy have figured out ways to get their two daughters talking (a lot!) during dinner. Here, Andy shares their five brilliant conversation starters.

The whole concept of family dinner, if you think about it, is pretty elemental: you gather around a table in the waning hours, you and yours, and eat some grub, converse about your day and, if youre lucky, life its ownself. But sometimes or, most of the time our dinners can resemble not so much a family of four eating in the kitchen of our Dutch colonial but a pre-verbal gathering of primitive hominids on the veldt, hunched over a large rock, devouring the days kill with frightening, brutal efficiencyquick, before somebody steals it! and doing it all through a silence punctured only by occasional lip smacks and grunts of pleasure. In other words, getting dinner on the table often feels like the easy part; its the conversing and communicating the family part of family dinnerthat often prove more elusive. And, okay, if you insist on greater specificity, its our ability to get our children to SPEAK TO US that is often very much in doubt.

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

Whatd you do today?

What?

Whatd you do today?

Huh?

Whatd you do today?

Mmm, I dont remember.

Whatd you do today?

I need ketchup.

Over the past few years, weve devised a few techniques to deal with this situation, ways to prod and cajole Phoebe and Abby into sharing and prompting and interactingor, at the barest minimum, stopping for a moment to look up and acknowledge something beyond the food on their plates…

jenny-rosenstrach-family-kitchen-dinner

Mad-Sad-Glad

The most consistently successful of all our methods. Each family member has to share one thing from their day that made them mad, one thing that made them sad, and one thing that made them glad. In addition to initiating some real conversation (we rarely make it all the way around the table, once the kids get going) this has the welcome benefit of clueing you into some things in your kids livesanxieties, accomplishments, mean girls at camp, math difficulties, and the always-telling lunch table politicsthat they might otherwise have locked away in a drawer and let fester.

The Negative Assertion

This doesnt deliver the kind of sustained, substantive conversation you get with Mad Sad Glad, but it often helps break the ice and get some dinnertime energy flowing. Kids love to prove their parents wrongor, at least, my kids love to prove me wrongso Ill offer up an observation that I know is untrue, and wait for the kids to set the record straight. Like this one, from a beautiful, clear summer evening about a week ago:

Me: I cant believe you had to stay inside all day at camp today because of the weather.

Abby: No we didnt!

Me: Man, that must have been so boring.

Phoebe: We were outside all day! We hiked down to the river, and had lunch under the poison ivy tree, and…

Other options: Why do you think Ms. Tuman decided to skip math lessons today? I cant believe nobody said a word on the bus on the way home this afternoon. Do you guys ever wonder how an ostrich flies? So Mommy tells me you guys hate soccer now…

Talk About Yourself (And Let Them Jump In)

My own life doesnt always strike me as riveting, but youd be surprised at what kids get into. An example: a year or so ago, I was working on a story about a disaster at a big coal plant in Tennessee. A huge containment pond collapsed, unleashing millions of gallons of toxic sludge known as coal ash. An entire town was buried. Streams, because of the heavy metals in the sludge, were contaminated. The prospect of cleanup was like a sick joke. Hardly kid fodder, right? They couldnt get enough! Almost two years later, they still ask about this, and want me to tell the whole coal story again. I even had to tell it to one of Abbys friends, who was sleeping over. Seriously. Possible moral of story: were not as boring as we think we are?

The Misdirection Play

I hardly ever get an answer when I ask my kids something directly. (What did you do at school today?) Similar to the Negative Assertion approach, I find it helps to take the pressure off a little by asking them to tell a story about someone else. But maybe dont phrase it quite so overtly. Phrase it like this: So [your kids name here], tell me about this new friend of yours, [new friend name here]. Does she have long hair? Does she like watching Boomerang? At recess, is she a cop or a robber? Bet you anything your kid responds, and when he/she does, youve got them right where you want them. You can take the conversation anywhere from there.

The Awkward Silence

Join forces with your husband or wife and resolve to say nothing, not a word. Kids cant hack it. They fill the silence. (Only downside: our six-year-old usually fills it by saying, Poop on a poop on a poop poop poop.)

The Nuclear Option

To be deployed only in truly desperate situations: Okay, if you guys dont start telling me about your days, were not having smores tonight. This one has never failedand believe me, weve wielded it way more than we should ever admit.

jenny-rosenstrach-kitchen

Thank you so much, Jenny and Andy! What do you guys think? Any other tips you have for starting conversations with little dudes? Are your kids chatty at dinner? Love the negative assertion tip, and it totally works with Toby whenever Ive tried it <img src="https://s.w.org/images/core/emoji/2/72×72/1f642.png&quot; alt="

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