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Expert Dinner Advice

Connecting During Family Mealtime Dr. William Doherty
A family check-in can spark conversation about what is going on in one another's lives.

Some of the conversation at family dinners is always going to be logistics talk such as scheduling and coordinating. Who needs a ride after dinner? When are grandma and grandpa coming to visit? Who needs help with school work tonight? But if logistics talk dominates the family dinner hour, there is no room for another kind of conversation: connection talk, which means sharing feelings, stories, opinions and experiences. Connection talk doesn’t have to be “deep,” but it’s more personal than logistics talk.

Some families are quite intentional about connection talk by beginning every dinner with a "check-in”: everyone mentions the best thing that happened to them that day and the worst thing. (Some families call it joys and concerns, others roses and thorns.) Even very young children can participate in this kind of connection ritual. The check-in can then be a springboard for further conversation about what is going on in one another’s lives.

Other families don’t structure a check-in but the parents make conscious efforts to connect at a deeper level during dinners. When my own children were growing up and paying more attention to the world around them, I liked to bring up events in the news. I would sometimes mention them to my wife and then ask the children if they had an opinion. I recall doing this after a legal tobacco settlement banned outdoor cigarette advertising, which meant that the cartoon figure Joe Camel would be disappearing from billboards. I asked my junior high aged children if they were familiar with Joe Camel. Of course they were familiar with Joe Camel – all kids were, they replied. That gave me the opening to ask them what they thought about that advertisement, about smoking and its effects, about how many kids they knew at school who smoked, and about what effect they thought the ads had on kids. I expressed my own opinion along the way, but the conversation was a give-and-take rather than an adult lecture about the evils of smoking.

Of course dinner conversations don’t have to be serious. They can also be about a baseball game, the antics of the family cat, a relative’s upcoming surgery, a parent’s childhood memories and a child’s complaint about having to do a science project. The key is that there is a chance for everyone to get involved in a shared conversation.

These ideas are adapted from The Intentional Family by William J. Doherty (Avon Books, 1999) and Putting Family First by William J. Doherty and Barbara Z. Carlson (Henry Holt, 2002).