The idea of family dinner may look different now than even just a few years ago, but it is still recognized as an important ritual for family communication and connection. Whether your family gets together for a homemade meal, breaks open the takeout boxes, or gathers for breakfast or lunch, family mealtime is an ideal time to check in with each other. You may encounter challenges like catering to everyone’s food preferences, turning off the screens, or coordinating busy schedules. Still, the research shows that prioritizing family mealtime at least four days per week will support children’s development in nutrition, social interaction, emotional regulation, and communication.
Once you’ve got everybody gathered, what do you talk about? Life in a pandemic has shifted daily routines. So it may seem like there’s less to catch up on when everyone is together all day. There are still plenty of topics to spark conversation! Let’s take a look at what you can bring to the table to get your kids talking.
This stage of development is all about social connection. Infants and toddlers are figuring out how their world works, and they learn by constantly observing and interacting with caring adults. Family mealtime is perfect for making lots of eye contact, showing facial expressions, and just playing around with silly sounds and simple words. An important note: babies and children respond to stressful environments as if it is happening directly to them. This stress can negatively impact all areas of development, so keep the serious adult conversation to a time and place away from the kids.
Children in this stage have not yet developed long-term memory; they live in the moment. You can support their growing vocabulary by describing their meal experience in detail: colors, shapes, textures, flavors, and cause-and-effect are easy ways to engage your child in mealtime conversation. With older toddlers and preschoolers, you can also recall big events from the day to support understanding of time and sequence.
This age is a prime time to develop emotional literacy by describing times when your child felt happy, calm, tired, scared, or sad. Repetition is a key component of learning, so it’s perfectly normal for your child to enjoy the same conversation every night!
This stage of development brings in a desire for autonomy and higher levels of cognitive development. A great way to stimulate conversation is with open-ended questions about specific parts of the day:
This is also an ideal stage to begin practicing gratitude, cooperation, and other important values for your family. You can incorporate daily thanksgiving into mealtime, invite your child to help with meal preparation or cleanup, and ask your child how they demonstrated qualities like kindness, friendship, or grit during the day.
You can continue supporting emotional development with more intentional conversations about feelings and how to express them. If your child had a tough day, help them identify and label how they felt. Research shows that the earlier children learn to label emotions, the better they can self-soothe and self-regulate as they grow up.
As you engage in conversation, remember to give plenty of time for your child to speak and tell their whole story. When you paraphrase what they say, they feel heard, understood, and validated. Keep the conversation flowing by asking, “Oh? And what else?” or “Wow, tell me more about that.”
Older children are rapidly expanding their social circles and their cognitive abilities. This means they can be interested in anything and everything under the sun! You can start a conversation by asking about their interests: sports, books, activities, music, school subjects, and TV shows are excellent options. When you show curiosity (without judgment) about their world, they will continue to share more and more with you.
As they have more friendships and social interactions, kids may need to vent about how those relationships are going. Be ready to listen to all the feelings, wishes, and disappointments that could arise. It may be tempting to ask about the other kid’s part, but be wary of letting it turn into gossip. Making assumptions, sharing only part of a story, and revealing private information are all forms of gossip, and it’s important to help our kids recognize it, avoid it, and actively discourage it.
If you feel like some topics have gotten stale, you can change it up by soliciting their ideas for family vacations or excursions, discussing options to earn an allowance, or asking them to tell a great joke. Our kids want to relax and unwind at the end of the day, just like we do. If you encounter a hot button topic, table it during mealtime and revisit it when you can focus on whatever issue or concern brought on the big reaction. Your kids will appreciate that you want to listen—without pressuring them to dish it all out.
While all of these suggestions can help liven up your family dinner conversations, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a meal in peace and quiet, too. Sometimes the best way to connect is to simply be present, all together. Whether you’re yucking it up with your toddler, getting the daily rundown from your young child, or catching a glimpse of your big kid’s social scene, take pride in your commitment to being together as a family. Bon appétit!