Let dinnertime spark the conversation you want to have.
Your son walks in the door after school, and you ask him how his day was. His answer (you guessed it), "Fine." Hoping for something more, you push further, "What did you do today?" "Nothing," he responds as he races upstairs to his room for his soccer gear.
You're not alone. Kids as young as six can become private about their thoughts. And with soccer practice, meetings and homework on the evening’s agenda, parents often don’t have time to fight their way back in. That’s why family psychologist Dr. Patti Zomber suggests making dinnertime a priority. "A family sitting down to a meal together is the best predictor of a child’s emotional adjustment," she says. "It’s a fun and accepting atmosphere, where kids feel a sense of belonging."
To get everyone sharing, set a positive tone. "Don’t make it something that kids have to show up for, or they won’t want to," Zomber says. "Make it a stress-reducing place for everyone—a place where parents don’t have to be parental and each family member has an equal role in the conversation."
Here are some ways to get a great exchange started:
Bow wow or quack-quack?
• ages 2 to 5
Children this age like to make decisions because it helps them feel independent and in control. Allow your young child to be the first family member to choose a dinner-table game. She could pose a question for everyone to answer, such as, "If you could be an animal, what would it be?"
Caught in the act—of kindness
• ages 6 to 8
At this age, kids are beginning to practice values such as kindness. A good question for your child to ask the rest of the family is, "Who went out of their way to do something for someone today?" You might be surprised to learn how one of your children helped her teacher or a friend at school that day.
• ages 9 to 12
Typically proud of the new things they are learning, kids in this age group want to teach family members what they know. Because they have recently developed a more sophisticated sense of humor, they also could teach everyone a new joke.
Highs and lows
• all ages
Sometimes asking an open-ended question that can’t be answered with a typical kid-response of “fine” or “nothing” is the best strategy for sparking conversation. Start a family dinner tradition of sharing your “high” for the day (the best thing that happened) and “low” for the day (the worst thing that happened). You’ll be surprised how much more insight you’ll gain into what your kids are thinking about.
Dinner conversation jar
• all ages
If you want some variety each night, here’s a fun idea: write a list of questions on strips of paper and put them in a jar. At dinner, have each person pull out a question and answer it. You can reuse the questions or add new ones as you see fit. Try open-ended questions like, “Tell us something you would like to learn how to do,” or “If you could go anywhere in the world to visit, where would you go and why?”