How to Beat the Dinnertime Disconnect

by sarah on October 6, 2010

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A few nights ago, my family went to a popular local pizza restaurant. Soon after we were seated, a family of three was seated at the booth next to us. My eight year old son said that he recognized the boy in the other family from school; they were in the same grade. The girl in that family appeared between one and two years younger than my own five-year-old daughter. The only other diner at the table was their mother.

After my family had placed our order and we were all busying ourselves with the puzzles and games on the children’s place mats and talking about our day, I would occasionally take a quick glance at the family at the next table.

I saw the kids involved in their own activities. The mother was absorbed in her Kindle, an e-book reader. There was no conversation. There was no interaction. The sister played by herself, the brother played by himself, and the mother was fully absorbed in her own activity.

Meanwhile at our table, my family was abuzz; my daughter and I were doing the crossword on her place mat, my husband was playing the dot game with our son on his place mat. We talked about their school day. We told some jokes. We talked about pizza.

When our food arrived, we all dove in. We talked between bites. Sometimes my kids talked during bites. Yeah, we gotta work on that.

When the other table’s food arrived, the mother packed up her Kindle. I was relieved to see that; I love to see other families interact!

While my family was still eating our dinner and the conversation had moved to whether or not we were going to attend the State Fair, I chanced a glance at the other table. The mother’s Kindle was still put away, but in its place was an iPhone that held her complete attention. The kids ate silently. The siblings didn’t talk amongst themselves. As the mother was absorbed in her iPhone, the mother wasn’t engaging them in conversation, either. The family was all together, yet they were all alone.

I don’t begrudge that woman’s use of the Kindle and the iPhone. In fact, I myself own both of those devices and I thoroughly enjoy them! What caught my eye was the lack of interaction. Kids can’t learn the art of conversation unless they are taught. My husband and I believe that one of our roles as parents is to set examples for our children. As such, we have strict rules: there is no reading at the table nor are phones allowed at the table. By asking questions and starting conversations, we are teaching our children how to be conversationalists; we are teaching them how to be with other people in an increasingly solitary world.

It could very well be that the family wanted to engage in conversation, but just didn’t know how to begin. Starting a dinner conversation is very easy! One great way to start is with a round robin. Everyone at the table must supply an answer to questions and directives such as:

  • What was the best thing that happened to you today?
  • What was the worst?
  • What was the nicest thing you did for somebody today?
  • Use three adjectives to describe your day today.
  • In 60 seconds, tell as much about your day as your can.
  • What books did you read today?

Oftentimes, questions like these can open the conversation into more diverse topics.

Dinnertime conversation is a great way for a busy family to connect after a full day, provides ample opportunities to find out what is on each other’s minds, and is a wonderful way for a family to stay connected!

What does your dinner table look and sound like?

Sarah is a mother of two school-aged kids.  She dislikes cooking, but immensely enjoys the dinner table.

photo credit: ednl

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sarah (35 Posts)

Sarah has been involved with API since 2002. She is the mother of two school-aged kids.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia October 6, 2010 at 10:17 am

I love this, my 2 year old daughter loves to be the center of conversation at our dinner table. And we often struggle to have conversations when she interupt’s and says No talk to La. But it is amazing how well she can then have a conversation with us about what she has done in the day. I look forward to the days those conversations become more complex. But start early even 2 year olds like to talk at the dinner table.

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Sharron October 7, 2010 at 6:17 am

Such a valuable topic. We have three girls and have established a consistent dinner routine as well. No toys at the table (this includes mom and dad!) No answering the phone if it rings. We go around the table and ask a question just like the ones you recommend.

I would add that parents of babies and very young toddlers should start right now to get into good dining habits at home and at a restaurant. So many people make the mistake of never taking their toddlers out to eat because they don’t behave well. All it takes is practice and consistent rules. We have some elementary age children in our close circle who STILL do not know how to behave in a restaurant (or they lug in video games and coloring books to entertain themselves).

Children love the concentrated attention they receive at meal times and I’ve always believed the nutrition they get from the food is amplified by the loving attention they get from us during the meal.

Love the post! I’ll be sharing this one.

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mamapoekie October 8, 2010 at 5:21 am

the family dinner is a big deal in Western Culture because kids and parents are away from home the entire day and dinnertime is basically the only time where everyone is together.
I can understand this need to connect as a family, but a parent should ask him/herself why they are doing this. Is this really to their childen’s benefit? Is posing limits and structure and coercion the way to go to create authentic family time?

“Kids can’t learn the art of conversation unless they are taught. My husband and I believe that one of our roles as parents is to set examples for our children.”
kids can learn everything without being taught, as long as they feel they need it and that they benefit from it. They do indeed learn a great deal from modeled behavior, but this is not something that needs to be taught!
Yes you should model connectivity as a parent, but you should not force or even expect your child to join in. Having a young child sit at the table forcibly teaches them very little except that big people can reign over little people

So far my rant. I understand the place you wrote this from and I did not mean to offend you
greets
mamapoekie

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Miranda October 9, 2010 at 7:50 pm

My first thoughts were the mother was probably burnt out dealing with the kids, had a hard day, no husband around to help so she took the kids out. I hardly see it as a big deal. They might be totaly different another day. Heck I would love some peace at the end of the day! But my kids are both under three. Family dinner time is valued and it is great but nothing to show off about.

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Lauren October 13, 2010 at 8:21 am

I see where you’re coming from here and we also try to make a ritual out of family time at dinner, but the truth is that often we’re pretty quiet too – and it’s not sad, we’re actually all fairly introverted personalities.

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