Monday, February 25, 2008

"So, how was your day?" Tips on table talk

The family dinner table gives you a regular, consistent time of day to talk with your kids and your partner. This is certainly true for my family. Even my 2 year old has started to ask, "So, how was your day?" when she sits down at the table. "Good, I had a good day. How was your day?" is the generic response. It's a little bland, but it does convey that someone cares and is listening. With 5 people at the table, usually someone will jump in, grab the floor and start re-telling an actual story. Between my talkative 12 year old and my competitive 9 year old vying for attention and their share of table talk, silence is not a problem we have.

I know many parents, though, who lament the one-word answers or grunts they get from their kids to that generic question, "How was your day?" My main advice is:
If you want specific stories, you have to ask better questions.
Starting when your kids are in preschool, coach yourself on how to ask questions about their "day." Simple questions help your child open up: "Did you do art today? What did you make? Did you visit the library?"

For older kids, it may be harder to have those easy clues about what he or she actually did in school. Just try some random age-appropriate topics, keeping off those testy academic subjects. Instead try: "What was for lunch in the cafeteria? What sports are you doing in gym or recess?" Asking an innocuous question about lunch or recess may actually get you some juicy back story on your child's peer relationships. My kid always has stories about who-dissed-who in the cafeteria and what rivalries are on-going during gym or recess.

More tips:
Know something about their day to trigger recall and to show that you are paying attention. I still have a schedule of my older kids daily activities, so I will sometimes use that as a crutch to start conversations.

Talk to your partner instead. Kids learn how to have conversations by listening to adults. They hear the narrative of stories as well as the give-and-take of conversation. Often, they model this unconsciously. For me, starting a conversation with my husband never lasts more than a few seconds, anyway. One of my kids quickly interrupts with something he or she finds more interesting.

Give them a "scaffold" to stand on. Ask specific, non-threatening questions. Break the "big" question apart into smaller questions. Use follow-up, if the first response was one word or a non-committal grunt.

You don't have to judge or comment. Just listen. If whatever your child reports from school doesn't result in an argument or conflict, he or she might be more inclined to talk again.

Turn off the TV: Watching TV while eating dinner kills conversation. There is just no way to really talk and engage while you are watching TV. And if you are not engaging with your kids at dinner, you are passing up a great opportunity.

Many of these topics are discussed in Miriam Weinstein's The Surprising Power of Family Meals. It's a great book that I'm sure to be referring to regularly as I write this blog.

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