It’s likely you’ve heard people lamenting the decline in family mealtime standards before. Maybe it’s a topic you’ve battled with yourself? The scene is a familiar one: It’s dinner time and the whole family is sat in the living room, no one is talking and everyone’s attention is focussed on the TV. Or even worse, everyone is sat up at the dinner table but nobody is talking because their attention is focussed on personal device screens!
Won’t eat without screen!
There are plenty of articles and advice columns out there about children who can’t eat without a screen in front of them. Some parents even have legitimate reasons for allowing this, but for the large majority of us it’s a problem behaviour that can have a negative effect on a child’s developing communication skills.
Getting the balance right
It’s tricky though. On the one hand screens offer an easy distraction that make sure mealtimes are conflict free and (depending on what you’re watching) potentially informative and rewarding. On the other hand meals are an essential family time and a great opportunity to both connect with the children and help build up their communication (especially conversation) skills.
At our house it’s a clean cut rule. If you’re eating on your own, by all means turn the tv on, if even one other person joins you, off it goes. If two or more people are eating together they do so without screens. “That’s all very well”, I hear you say, “but when we turn the telly off it’s super awkward. No one knows what to talk about; the kids answer us with short, one word answers and then the conversation fizzles out.”
This brings us to the question I want to take a look at today:
How can we revive the art of dinner conversation in our home?
- Model what you want to hear from your children. Ask open questions and then listen carefully and ask follow up questions if someone responds.
- Model what you want to see from your children. This might seem obvious, but it will be impossible to enforce phone bans on your kids if you’re sat checking facebook at the dinner table yourself!
- Break up routine answers. It’s easy to fall into a routine and find yourself getting the answer “Fine” to “How was your day?” and “Lunch” to “What was the best thing at school today?” Break this up with open ended follow up questions like “What could you do to make it better?” or with unexpected angles like “Do you think your teacher had a good day at school today?”
- Break the ice with an embarrassing or funny story of your own. Once the initial awkwardness has passed things tend to flow a little more easily, so come to the table with something in your back pocket; something that the others can laugh about or which will invite questions or similar stories.
- Don’t aim too high (for now). Perhaps you hear the phrase “Dinner conversation” and start thinking current affairs and highbrow theories. You know your kids though, this probably isn’t what interests them. If you want them to enjoy joining in with family conversations and even start taking the initiative themselves, you’re going to have to keep it at a level which they can keep up with and which they find engaging.
- It takes practice. Whilst we might want the conversation to flow naturally from everybody present, it could well seem forced and awkward when you suddenly implement this sort of rule where it didn’t previously exist. This is expected; don’t be discouraged, don’t back down. You need to keep on creating space for conversation even it feels clumsy at first, as with anything it’ll take a little practise to get good at!
- Use online resources to prepare. I felt a bit embarrassed the first time I googled for conversation starters; I thought maybe it was an indication of my own lack of creativity. Shouldn’t conversation be spontaneous and not prepared? We all have our go to conversation points though and it can be really helpful to mix things up by looking up some new places to start from. Hopefully things will become more natural over time, but preparation is certainly good at first, just be ready to be flexible if the conversation starts moving in unexpected directions! There are a lot of resources out there and taking advantage of them is a smart way to make sure you’re never at a loss when met with blank faces.
- As suggested in this article, listen uncritically to children’s objections to the no screens rule and then talk about the reasons why it’s important to you.
Got more tips, tricks and experiences of reviving the art of dinner conversation? Tell us about them in the comments below!