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Monday, February 24, 2014

Motherhood Mondays: How to get your kids to talk at dinner

Our friends Jenny and Andy have figured out ways to get their two daughters talking (a lot!) during dinner. Here, Andy shares their five brilliant conversation starters...


The whole concept of family dinner, if you think about it, is pretty elemental: you gather around a table in the waning hours, you and yours, and eat some grub, converse about your day and, if you’re lucky, life its ownself. But sometimes—or, most of the time—our dinners can resemble not so much a family of four eating in the kitchen of our Dutch colonial but a pre-verbal gathering of primitive hominids on the veldt, hunched over a large rock, devouring the day’s kill with frightening, brutal efficiency—quick, before somebody steals it!—and doing it all through a silence punctured only by occasional lip smacks and grunts of pleasure. In other words, getting dinner on the table often feels like the easy part; it’s the conversing and communicating—the family part of family dinner—that often prove more elusive. And, okay, if you insist on greater specificity, it’s our ability to get our children to SPEAK TO US that is often very much in doubt.

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

“What’d you do today?”


“What’d you do today?


“What’d you do today?”

“Mmm, I don’t remember.”

“What’d you do today?”

“I need ketchup.”

Over the past few years, we’ve devised a few techniques to deal with this situation, ways to prod and cajole Phoebe and Abby into sharing and prompting and interacting—or, at the barest minimum, stopping for a moment to look up and acknowledge something beyond the food on their plates...

The most consistently successful of all our methods. Each family member has to share one thing from their day that made them mad, one thing that made them sad, and one thing that made them glad. In addition to initiating some real conversation (we rarely make it all the way around the table, once the kids get going) this has the welcome benefit of clueing you into some things in your kids’ lives—anxieties, accomplishments, mean girls at camp, math difficulties, and the always-telling lunch table politics—that they might otherwise have locked away in a drawer and let fester.

The Negative Assertion

This doesn’t deliver the kind of sustained, substantive conversation you get with Mad Sad Glad, but it often helps break the ice and get some dinnertime energy flowing. Kids love to prove their parents wrong—or, at least, my kids love to prove me wrong—so I’ll offer up an observation that I know is untrue, and wait for the kids to set the record straight. Like this one, from a beautiful, clear summer evening about a week ago:

Me: “I can’t believe you had to stay inside all day at camp today because of the weather.”

Abby: “No we didn’t!”

Me: “Man, that must have been so boring.”

Phoebe: “We were outside all day! We hiked down to the river, and had lunch under the poison ivy tree, and..."

Other options: Why do you think Ms. Tuman decided to skip math lessons today? I can’t believe nobody said a word on the bus on the way home this afternoon. Do you guys ever wonder how an ostrich flies? So Mommy tells me you guys hate soccer now…

Talk About Yourself (And Let Them Jump In)

My own life doesn’t always strike me as riveting, but you’d be surprised at what kids get into. An example: a year or so ago, I was working on a story about a disaster at a big coal plant in Tennessee. A huge containment pond collapsed, unleashing millions of gallons of toxic sludge known as coal ash. An entire town was buried. Streams, because of the heavy metals in the sludge, were contaminated. The prospect of cleanup was like a sick joke. Hardly kid fodder, right? They couldn’t get enough! Almost two years later, they still ask about this, and want me to tell the whole “coal story” again. I even had to tell it to one of Abby’s friends, who was sleeping over. Seriously. Possible moral of story: we’re not as boring as we think we are?

The Misdirection Play

I hardly ever get an answer when I ask my kids something directly. (“What did you do at school today?”) Similar to the Negative Assertion approach, I find it helps to take the pressure off a little by asking them to tell a story about someone else. But maybe don’t phrase it quite so overtly. Phrase it like this: “So [your kid’s name here], tell me about this new friend of yours, [new friend name here]. Does she have long hair? Does she like watching Boomerang? At recess, is she a cop or a robber?” Bet you anything your kid responds, and when he/she does, you’ve got them right where you want them. You can take the conversation anywhere from there.

The Awkward Silence

Join forces with your husband or wife and resolve to say nothing, not a word. Kids can’t hack it. They fill the silence. (Only downside: our six-year-old usually fills it by saying, “Poop on a poop on a poop poop poop.”)

The Nuclear Option

To be deployed only in truly desperate situations: “Okay, if you guys don’t start telling me about your days, we’re not having s’mores tonight.” This one has never failed—and believe me, we’ve wielded it way more than we should ever admit.
Thank you so much, Jenny and Andy! What do you guys think? Any other tips you have for starting conversations with little dudes? Are your kids chatty at dinner? Love the negative assertion tip, and it totally works with Toby whenever I've tried it:)

(I'm excited to say that my friend Jenny Rosenstrach is a new contributor to Cup of Jo. I'll be featuring one or two posts of hers every month. Some will be my favorite old posts from her blog, Dinner: A Love Story (syndicated with her permission, of course), which I'd love to share with those of you who haven't yet read them; some will be excerpts from her wonderful cookbook/memoir Dinner: A Love Story; some will be sneak peeks from her upcoming book (can't wait!), and some will be original posts that she writes for Cup of Jo. I hope you love her writing as much as I do.)
P.S. 20 surprising parenting tips, and French kids eat everything.

(Middle two photos by Jennifer Causey. This post originally appeared in 2010 on Dinner: A Love Story, and was written by Jenny's husband, Andy, who contributes to her blog sometimes, and was reprinted with Jenny's permission)


catherine sprunt said...

Hooray! I'm so excited for Jenny's guest posts. I actually found her blog though a link in your sidebar; I've made lots of her recipes and think her and Andy's anecdotes are hilarious! Thanks Joanna :)

Ginny said...

Hooray! I love Jenny and Andy and I'm thrilled that we will be seeing them on Cup of Jo! Thanks, Joanna!

Shoko said...

I love them. What a brilliant post! Can't wait for more to come!

Joanna Goddard said...

i love her so much, too! so glad you guys are excited to read more from her! we're working on some original posts now, too. thanks!!

Katie D. said...

Yayyyyy! My favorite bloggers are teaming up!! :) This is great.

Jesse said...

oh i'm so excited for more DALS! one of my favorite blogs that has saved my dinner and sanity too many times:)

Hanna said...

I'm obsessed with Jenny. I love how the dynamic/chemistry between her and her husband comes out through their writing! They seem like the real deal.

Emily Dara said...

love it- when i used to teach at an after school program we did a similar one to mad-sad glad... called highs and lows. Sometimes we've even started "playing" with friends when we've all had a long day and meet for dinner- its a healthy way to vent ;)

Liz said...

I love love love the book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk." It's full of this sort of idea.

One recommendation for older kids and teenagers is to not bombard them with questions when they get home from school, but rather to say simply, "I'm so glad to see you!" It reminds me of a post you did a while back, Joanna, about always reacting positively when your kids come into the room.


foggy dress said...

Bookmarking this for when I have kidlets!

Angry Asian said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

maybe it's a cultural thing or maybe my family's just a bunch of jerks (i think it's a combo of both, but mainly the latter), but growing up we weren't allowed to talk at the dinner dinner. (we also weren't allowed to drink water, they said it gave us false fullness)

they believed that kids should be seen but not heard. as a result, i am awful at small talk, this is something that i struggle with still today.

Jessica Dodge said...

Emily Dara, we do the "tell me your high and low" one too... that way we don't miss the things that felt the biggest to our girl in HER day. It also reinforces seeing the positive and having a healthy respect for overcoming small set backs each day.

Elizabeth Lee said...

I'm very excited to hear Jenny will be contributing! I read her blog avidly as well! Yay for collabs! :) x

Melanie Price said...

Yay! Very excited for Jennys posts. I love her blog. And what cute ideas for dinner convo. This post will come in handy someday...

Jessica Dodge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne Bodine said...

Great to see you two teaming up! Can't wait

Anne Bodine said...

Really looking forward to this collaboration! Can't wait

Anne Bodine said...

Really looking forward to this collaboration! Can't wait

Mary said...

I love these guys - Dinner a Love Story is one of my favorite blogs and cookbooks! "poop on a poop on a poop poop poop..." That is SO my house - made me laugh out loud! Love it.

sharareh said... are you from Germany? 'cause your comment reminded me that it was the same case at some of my German friends families. Especially the water thing a post war behavior which was necessary then but the grown up of the Wirtschaftswunder generation loathed it.

Betsy said...

We took turns doing skits a la THE GONG SHOW. We "gonged" each other using forks on our water glasses. Never a dull moment at the table and we still laugh about it, years later!

PS: We are NOT an artsy family - my dad is a stockbroker and my mom is a PE teacher. I think that's why it was so funny.

Unknown said...

This whole thing CRACKS ME UP! Super helpful. But!!!! And this is a big BUT! I currently have a four year old who talks so much at dinner we have had to institute a "no talking" rule until she actually eats something. I love hearing her every thought but GEEZ! She needs to eat!!! :)

Christine Amorose said...

When I was growing up, instead of asking me what I did that day (answer: "nothing"), she would ask what my favorite part of my day was. Always sparked a (positive) story!

J.M. Swanson said...

I love the Dinner a Love Story blog. I'm excited they will be part of yours now too!

Jane Doe said...

Definitely bookmarking this for when my little man gets a big older. Totally dreading the day when he decides he's 'too cool to talk to Mom'.

Aren't friends the best source of advice and suggestions? I just wrote a post/infographic about what makes great friends great. The Anatomy of a Friend Infographic. Check it out!


Harmony said...

The negative assertion technique is my favourite suggestion! We can have a lot of fun with that one.

Rebecca said...

Yay! This was such a fun post. And I'm excited that she'll be on your team. Good pick, Joanna!

Rebecca said...

Yay! This was such a fun post. And I'm excited that she'll be on your team. Good pick, Joanna!

Amy P said...

This is awesome! I love DALS - and the cookbook is excellent. If you're a parent with young kids, buy it now.

Liz - I also just bought "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk", as well as its companion book, 'Siblings Without Rivalry". I've started Siblings and hopefully I can carve out some time this week for more reading!

Erin Engle said...

That negative assertion idea is hilarious! These are great.

<a href=">a clover & a bee</a>

Ann Cundy said...

So thrilled to hear that Jenny is one of your new contributors! We LOVE their blog and cook from the DALS cookbook all the time.

Eliza Lewis said...

This is so American! Even the dinner conversation has to be organized ha! The ideas are cute though :)

alex said...

Great news! I love her blog :).

By the way, have you decided on the person who is going to work with you for a A Cup of Jo?
There wasn't any kind of follow up on this subject and you seemed so excited about it...

véronique said...

With 4 kids including3 teenagers and one 3 years old, our problem is to make them stop talking. They talk all the time about everything. it's very cheerful but sometimes when I've had a hard work day I'd like a bit more quiet. We cherish those moments, though, because they won't last for ever. (I have to add that we are French - I don't know if that changes anything in the way we live dinner time ?)

Viva La France said...

Eliza - I totally agree.
And the fact that he was surprised that he was actually interesting to his kids makes me cringe. What happened to the adults talking and the kids listening? How else do they learn about their parents and the adult world. Lets face it I would rather hear about a coal plant problem than what some 6 year old did at school (same as yesterday! :-)

K Chavez said...

My two favorite blogs coming together. I am in heaven :) DAL is my go to when I get stumped for family dinner.

Kara S said...

I usually can't get my daughter to stop talking at dinner! :-) Although my husband always complains our daughter never tells him about her day, so I'll have to give him these ideas.

Sarah Clark said...

Yay! What exciting news, I cant wait for more to come!! We have our family dinners (for now!) on the weekends and we start off with "hands around the table". One of my husband's best friend's family did it growing up, and I first heard it at his rehearsal dinner and it was the best thing I had ever heard! Once everyone is seated at the dinner table, we all holds hands and sing " hands around the table, hands around the table, yay daddy, yay mommy...", and we go around the whole table singing everyone's name. My kids (ages 7, 6 & 2.5) LOVE it and sometime we have to do it multiple times!! It's such a nice way to start dinner and celebrate each other :)

Amanda Villaveces said...

Love these ideas! With my three year old we usually ask what his friends did that day. Once he gets started he will tell us everything that happened at school from what his friends did to what he did and even what the teachers did. It's always quite enjoyable to hear his recollection.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Brilliant! I don't have kids - but I will use these sneaky tricks on my husband! My mother's approach was to trap us in the car and say "OK girls, tell me the gossip" And then grade us. If we didn't really give her details, she would give us an "D" and then we'd have to talk more until we got an A. "Gossip" obviously has negative connotations but the open forum gave us the guts early on to talk to mom about the hard things. And to this day, when she picks me up from the airport .... she grades me. :)

13bees said...

awesome collab! I've been reading (and loving) DALS for a year+ and it's also the only cookbook I've actually "read". wish we still lived in new york so we could all get together for dinner!

meghann halfmoon said...

I feel like somebody has placed a camera at my dinner table! We'll definitely be implementing some of these ideas.

melanie said...

love love love the gang at DALS. Can't wait to see more of them here!

Brooklynbee said...

Awesome! I am obsessed with DALS. I so want to have Jenny & her family over for dinner. We only live one town over for them, so I feel like this is a realistic fantasy. (Oh, and we live in HIPSTURBIA). :)

grace said...

This is so great, thank you for sharing! A huge part of my childhood revolved around the dinner table and I think it is so important to eat together as a family. xx

CinthyaG said...

MMs are back!!! Thank you, Joanna, love, love these stories. I'm not a parent, but I love the children in my life and, it is my hope, when I'm older, to be a teacher. Anyone notice there aren't many any older teachers nowadays. Kinder, 1st, 2nd grade teachers used to be in their 50s when I was a child and I'm 37. Having funny, interesting adults in one's life as a child is enriching beyond words; good for Jenny and Andy.

Dana said...

Love the post and a big fan of DALS. One of the tricks that works with my pre-k boy is asking him specific questions from his day care sheet about things they did/learned today. We also ask him to "teach" us something new everyday based on what he learned at school (a new Spanish word, an anecdote, etc)

nycbride said...

No kids here, but what a cute Boston Terrier, oh my. Looks like an active participant in the dinner conversations as well.
I was also wondering if the parents share, too.

Vilde said...

I used negative assertion at the dinner table tonight, and my normally taciturn 3.5 year old son opened up. It really was like magic! I (copying the example) said, gosh it must have been a drag not to get to play outside at school today. He said, "what?!" and then almost immediately "I didn't have anything to play with. Everyone was doing other things. I was feeling sad. I walked around by myself." This from a little guy who really doesn't share about his day.

Thanks so much for your post! Because of it, I was able to help my son through a tough moment. I can't wait to try the other ideas!

Design Scouting said...

Hurrah!!! I adore Jenny, her writing, and that she'll be contributing to Cup of Jo!

Lomagirl said...

And now for a follow up post- how to get the kid that won't STOP talking to do so.

Michelle {lovely little things} said...

I Love this, bookmarking for future reference!

Michelle Nose said...

Awesome! I love DALS. One of the best blog collaborations : )

Renae said...

Yay! Your blog introduced me to DALS and I loved it - so I got the book, and loved that (seriously - is this the only recipe book that actually acknowledges and works around picky toddler/kids eating habits?) so I can't wait to see what you two come up with together!

Connytwo said...

in our house my almost 6 years old daughter can not stop talking during dinner time and we are like less talking and more eating.

Schenck catherine said...

No need for us to start conversations: my son is a science nerd and bombards us with facts or questions such as: "are you for or against Google glasses?" "do you think a robot will one day be a means of transportation?" "Did you know that when you look at a molecule from a different angle, they look entirely different?" etc
So it finally ends up with my husband the giant science nerd having nerd conversation with our son, while I listen to my daughter talk about all the horses at her riding horse club. Those two can't shut up.
My husband and I are adepts of dinner with the kids only at weekends, the rest of the time, we do what Pamela Druckerman describes: dinner for the parents when the kids are in bed.
Also, I love Jenny's posts!

M. Mellor said...

What a perfect match! So excited for Jenny's posts!

kaywrites said...

I love their blog and their book! It is my new food bible! I even wrote one of my cooking columns about them. Fabulous.

kaywrites said...

I love their blog and their book! It is my new food bible! I even wrote one of my cooking columns about them. Fabulous.

Sara Sue said...

How great! This reminds me of Family Time Machine activities for dinner time. They also have inspiration for bath time, bed time and more.

Ashleigh Blatt said...

Yaee! This seems like a such a great fit! So excited to watch you two collaborate!!

mommyinspiration said...

Love this! Thanks for sharing this!

Roopika Malhotra said...

Yay! Congrats to Jenny--my first ever editor at Real Simple! Love both your writing and look forward to your posts!

Sarah D said...

I have the opposite problem at dinner time. My kids will not stop talking long enough to get a bite of food in! lol! They are 5 and 8 and the minute they hit the kitchen they talk, talk, talk, talk! We actually have to call silent time to focus on eating midway through every dinner.

courtney said...

Yippee! I jumped for joy when I saw this! :)

ct said...

My dad says it is rude to talk at the dinner table, especially with your mouth full and that we should just finish our meal quietly so we don't choke on fish bones or rice. :p

rachelannpierce said...

"Poop on a poop on a poop poop poop."

I'm sorry, I read though about half of the comments and was still laughing at this. I have the mind of a 6-year-old.

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ezrazoe said...

a tip on how to get kids to talk to you about their day at dinnertime - we play 'highs and lows'. Go around the table and ask people to talk about their high point and low point of the day.. you'll be amazed how much it will get your little one to share!

Grace Kim said...

I laughed out loud at the beginning of this, Joanna! My husband is Korean and we currently live in Korea. Eating here is traditionally just sit down and everyone mostly just eats. Quickly. No pauses, no lingering. Eat. Eat. And eat some more. And then...when everyone's finished...then you talk. Even after five years of being in Asia, I'm still not used to eating that way! So I often take breaks in between stuffing my mouth with food ;) ...but when I do, my mother-in-law (or whichever aunty is present) always always always asks me if I've already in "that's it!???? that's all she's eating????" It has become a joke now between my husband and I whenever we eat with his family ;)

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