The statistics about family dinnertimes are pretty staggering. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, kids and teens who share family dinners 3 or more times per week are less likely to be overweight, more likely to eat healthy foods, get better grades, are less likely to do drugs, drink, or become sexually active, have better relationships with their parents, fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors towards others and higher life satisfaction.
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Of course your kids are anything like mine, getting them to share details about their day can be a challenge. Questions like “how was school?” or “how was your day?” are usually meant with a shrug and a generic “fine” or “good,” while “what did you learn?” or “what did you do?” receive the inevitable “I don’t remember.”
It can be infuriating!
After all, most of us, as parents want to be actively involved in our kids’ lives. We want to hear about the ups and downs, the triumphs and the failures, to be there to cheer on the successes, and to wipe the tears away when they fall.
But how are we supposed to do that when they won’t talk?
While every family is a little different, here are a few strategies that might help liven up your dinnertime conversations and get your kids to open up.
Ask Specific, Open-Ended Questions
One solution to avoiding “fine,” “good,” or “I don’t know” is asking very direct and specific questions that don’t allow for a yes or no answer, and that help kids go back through their day in their mind to recall specific events.
Here are a few examples of questions you might want to try:
- Who did you play with today?
- Who did you sit with at lunchtime?
- What subject are you studying in Social Studies?
- What book is the teacher reading to the class right now?
- Who was the speaker at the school assembly?
- Who got in trouble today?
- What was the hardest thing you had to do today?
- What rules at school are different than rules at home?
- What was the most fun thing you got to do today?
- What was the funniest thing that happened today?
- What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?
Use Conversation Starters
Sometimes it can be hard to think of what to say, especially when you are put on the spot! Even though I know I should ask open-ended questions, I inevitably resort back to the standard, “how was your day?”
Luckily there are some great resources for parents that can help with this problem! My friend Courtney DeFeo recently developed something called “Conversation Cups,” that I absolutely adore. These bright, colorful cups are printed with a whole variety of thoughtful questions that are designed to get the conversation flowing around the table. My kids love them!
Additionally, TableTopics Family Cards are another fun tool we have used to get our kids talking. They come in a cool Lucite cube that you can keep out on the coffee table or nearby shelf for impromptu chats, and the questions are definitely intended to get kids talking!
Make it a Game
Several years ago, my husband and I came up with a simple dinnertime game that has made all the difference for our family. At first, when my oldest daughter Maggie was very young, it was called High-Low. The concept was pretty simple—we all took turns sharing our best and worst moments of the day. Early on, we made a rule that it was okay to have more than one high—we called this High-High—but you couldn’t weren’t allowed to have Low-Low. If you had a low, you also had to think of a high, and if you had two lows, you needed two highs to balance it out.
This game worked for a while, and eventually our younger daughter Annie was old enough to play too. Even so, their answers were often generic and repetitive. We had to ban using “this yummy dinner” as a high and added a few more rules—highs & lows couldn’t be something that hasn’t happened yet, and they can’t be the same two days in a row.
But even the new rules didn’t solve the problem. We still heard very little other than “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” when it came to talking about their day.
And then one day, we had a little brainstorm that changed everything. What our game was missing, my husband and I decided, was the element of competition and a little incentive to share something that was actually interesting. Thus, we (so creatively) changed the name of our game from “High-Low” to “High, Low & Interesting.”
Our new rules of the game are that in addition to our normal highs & lows, each person must also share their most interesting moment of the day. And then, once everyone has had a turn to share, we vote. Each person can only vote once, and you cannot vote for yourself. And here’s the kicker: the person with the most interesting story wins a dollar.
In our house the winner changes a lot between all four of us, which means that it usually only ends up costing us about $3 or $4 a week. In the event of a tie between the girls, they play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to determine who gets the dollar.
But let me tell you, it’s pretty amazing what a simple dollar can do
This simple tweak has completely transformed our dinnertime conversations. My kids have miraculously learned to actually remember what happens during their day. It has encouraged them to pay more attention to the world around them, and also helped them to separate the mundane details from things that are actually significant. After all, the competition is stiff and if they don’t share something good, they won’t get any votes. Needless to say, we now hear about everything!
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As kids get older, keeping them plugged in and engaged in family conversations is increasingly important. Research has shown, again and again, that the families who eat—and talk—together stay together, and that kids raised in families who eat dinner together on a regular basis are happier and ultimately more successful. Get the conversation going and you just never know where it might lead!