If you’re a parent, you’ve surely been urged to make family dinners work as often as possible. For the record, we think family breakfasts and lunches work, too, because the point isn’t so much about eating dinner together, as it is creating opportunities for parents and kids to talk. That’s the good stuff and what research shows make a big, positive difference in kids’ lives.
So — yay! — no stress if you can’t be home when your kids eat dinner. Just try to find another time during the week when you can slow down, put technology away, and sit with your kids, whether for an early morning breakfast, afternoon tea, or dessert. But — ugh — we still have to figure out how to get kids to say more than “yea,” “uh-huh,” and my personal favorite, “I don’t remember.” Because it’s not always so easy.
Here are five easy ways to help get kids talking more at the table, no matter what meal you’re sharing.
1. Ask the right kinds of questions.
Just like with every aspect of parenting, there’s definitely no right, one-size-fits-all answer here, but asking certain types of questions can certainly help make a difference. In general, kids, especially little ones, do much better with very specific questions like who did you sit with on the bus or did you do addition in math today? These have a clear answer and aren’t overwhelming or ask them to call up feelings on the spot that they may still be processing.
Though maybe not every time, you’ll be surprised at how often these very specific questions lead to conversation about bigger things like their feelings about who they sat with on the bus or doing math.
As my kids get older, I’m finding that open-ended questions are starting to work at getting conversations started too — as long as they aren’t too personally probing. (We’re not there yet!) This excellent list of 30+ open ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer have been a lifesaver with my tween, especially the ones about the future.
2. Play games.
This is a no-brainer in my house with two competitive game enthusiasts, but really, every kid loves a good game. If you have a small child, it can be as simple as turning your questions into a guessing game: Ask them to think of their favorite thing they did that day or one person they played with, and see if you can guess in three tries. If you don’t, many kids will be excited to correct you — and maybe even win a point.
For older kids, consider making a more formal game that you can play over and over. For example, write a bunch of questions or topics on pieces of paper that you keep in a jar. Make it so that everyone gets a turn choosing one to direct the discussion of the day.
Kids — and, ahem, grownups — of all ages can all easily participate in a round of glad/sad/mad where you go around and name one thing from the day that fits in each category. Honestly, we almost never make it around to everyone when we play this because somebody’s glad/sad/mad starts a conversation that draws us all in.
3. Talk about yourself
Sometimes we get so focused on digging for info that we forget conversations are two-directional — yes, even with our kids. Start talking more about yourself to warm things up and create an environment of emotional intimacy. Also, your talking becomes an important model for how they can talk about their day. The more you share, the more you show how sharing can be done.
Lastly, pay attention to the questions that your kids ask you. They often reveal as much as when they share details about their day or feelings.
4. Listen more, problem solve less.
While this tip doesn’t help initiate conversations, the more you employ it, the more you create an environment that nurtures conversation over the long haul. In other words: The more you do this, the more likely kids will talk and share over time.
It’s natural to want to jump in with solutions and help solve our kids’ problems, but kids often find judgement in our solutions. And, hey, it’s true: how we’d solve a problem definitely communicates something about our values and how we think things should go. As soon as our kids feel judged or find that the solutions their working through don’t match up with ours, they’re likely to shut down. So try just listening.
Yes, even if that means long periods of silence. Reach out and lovingly touch your child’s shoulder, hold their hand, and just be quiet to leave room for conversation. It works — eventually.
5. Keep things funny and casual.
The best thing that you can do to encourage your children to share with you more is to foster a warm, trusting environment that makes them feel comfortable. And nothing is less comfortable than being put on the spot, especially if it’s about something related to feelings that you’re still processing.
Trust that the important info and feelings will come out eventually — either at a later mealtime, in the car (when kids are often more open to talking, because no stressful eye contact), or at bedtime, when they’re at their most tired and vulnerable — and use mealtimes to foster humor and good feelings instead of as an opportunity go deep.
Ask your child about something funny that happened in their day, or share a funny moment from yours. Tell a joke. Keep it light. It’s okay. In fact, the warm fuzzies you’ll create as you all decompress from a busy day together are way more than just okay. They’re the foundation of a healthy parent-child relationship.