Updated: Nov 19, 2019
It certainly looks that way. In certain families, it appears virtually extinct.
Recently, I questioned several of my students whether they had family dinners on a routine basis. All of the children I asked came from families whose parents would say they are dedicated to raising healthy, happy children.
The test group was small—less than ten—still, I believe the responses are telling.
Some reported that they ate before their parents did. Some said it was almost impossible to eat together due to after school activities. Others said their parents didn’t come home until eight or nine, which precluded family dinners, while others said they ate in their rooms and did homework. One said he occasionally ate with his parents, but his younger brother would tantrum if he couldn’t eat in his room. Another who ate in her room, said she sometimes doesn’t see her older sister for a couple of days and would like to see her more. Rarely did a child say his or her family routinely ate dinner together.
WE DON’T WANT THIS!
The reason is simple: dinner time is a valuable opportunity to communicate with our children solely to connect.
We might say we spend plenty of time with our children when we can connect. And we are…spending time with them. More time than any previous generation.
Then why are we—children and adults—more anxious, depressed and disconnected to one another than any previous generation? And why are scientists saying this ennui is at epidemic levels?
The answer isn’t simple. But looking into the type of time we spend with our children might help.
Are we all on our phones?
Is there a preponderance of complaining, criticizing, and blaming coming from everyone?
Is whatever dialogue there is all about logistics—homework, scheduling, fitting everything in?
Do we have face-to-face conversations, where we are looking at each other eye-to-eye, simply curious about one another?
Are we getting to know each other deeply through discussion and sharing opinions, thoughts, and feelings?
Are we working on connecting with our children’s essence behind some of their behaviors with our essence behind some of our behaviors?
I remember seeing a multi generational Italian family at a restaurant in a small town in Italy. They had finished their meal and were sitting at the table talking. No Instagram, no pictures, no children’s games, no distractions. Just conversation. They may have spent an hour there just hanging out. I don’t know how any of them felt but hanging out like that provided an opportunity to connect, enjoy, and simply be with one another. To me, they represented a cultural difference that we may want to emulate.
Our culture doesn’t help us make room for “connecting time”. Our schools make it even more challenging. Still, it is up to us to consciously work against those pressures.
If necessary, we need to force our children to spend connecting time with us. Force ourselves to spend connecting time with them. Whatever push-back there is from either side will eventually dissipate. But many of us are frightened to talk to one another. It’s true. I’ve seen it.
Think about that: a kid who is frightened or at a minimum uncomfortable talking to a parent, and a parent who is frightened or too uncomfortable to talk to his kid.
To me—for the typical, caring family—that’s pretty ludicrous and very sad, and the loss is significant.
Whether you are frightened or not, scientists are saying the ability to connect and communicate face-to-face will be the most valuable tool of the future.
They also say conversation teaches critical thinking, a growth mindset, curiosity, problem solving, character qualities, personal responsibility, learning, and much more. The challenge is: being good at conversation and connecting takes time and practice.
Dinner time is a perfect opportunity to practice. Think about consciously connecting essence to essence then start talking. Make fun of yourself. Make mistakes. Talk story. Exchange thoughts and feelings.
Have family dinners as often as possible.
They help us connect in a way all humans yearn for and are made to do.
Here are twenty-one sample conversation starters that you can use and adapt or encourage your own conversation starters.
Ask a question everyone gets to answer. Make follow-up comments and follow-up questions that could promote discussion.
Ask a question about something you are curious about.
Answer your own question.
Get each person to tell their first memory.
Name something you did fun that day—from seeing a butterfly to riding a roller coaster, aware that these things we can be grateful for.
Everyone shares a mistake of the day. The winner is the person with the biggest mistake—yes, we can use this time to teach indirectly concepts like actually feeling comfortable making mistakes.
Tell stories about your childhood, including family history—embarrassing, funny, interesting, sad. Remember, talking story can be a magical way to connect.
Ask them to tell stories about themselves.
Discuss something you read or thought or wondered about.
Talk about the book you are reading or your child is reading.
If you could have only one superpower, what would it be and why?
Describe yourself in 5 words or less.
Let’s tell each other discounted, courageous, embarrassed, curious, or any of the wide range of feelings we all have.
If you could give every person a gift in the world, but if would have to be the same gift, what would that gift be?
Imagine you’re the President and you need to have 3 people to assist you. Who would you pick and why?
If you could set one rule for the family that we all have to follow, what would it be?
Imagine you’re the teacher tomorrow at school. What are 3 things you’d teach that you think would help make school more useful for one’s future?
If we lost everything we owned today but could keep 3 things, what would you pick and why?
When someone is feeling stressed, what are 3 suggestions you’d share with them on how to feel less stressed?
If we experience our greatest moments of growth and learning from failure, why are we so afraid to fail?
Any question starting with “I wonder…”, “Tell me about a time when…”, “What do you think…”.
Breaking bread together has always been important.
Let’s take it back!*
*For further scientific information about how eating together promotes well-being and academic success, you may want to take a look at: