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Expert Dinner Advice

How to Talk to Your Family Members About Changing Family Dinnertime Dr. William Doherty
We get used to things the way they have been, even if that way hasn’t been satisfying.

Most of us get used to things the way they have been in our families, even if the way they have been is not always satisfying. Family dinner practices take on a life of their own, and people often resist changes even when they realize they may be good ideas. If you simply announce to your dinner-grazing teenagers that there will now be sit-down family dinners every day, you will likely hear a chorus of indignant remarks about their tight schedules and the poor menu of food you prepare.

So what’s a better way? Start with your values about family meals and say why you need them and why you think they are important for your family. Don’t start out with criticism of how your family is doing dinners now; that will create defensiveness (“I don’t answer my cell phone during dinner that often!”) Don’t start off with a specific proposal because that may lead to arguing over details without the big picture, as in “I can’t be home for dinner every night of the week.” Pick your time, lay out your values and be prepared to negotiate.

The Direct Path to Changing Family Dinners

Here are guidelines for talking with family members about changing family dinnertime. If you have a spouse or partner in your family, start the conversation with that person. After getting buy-in there, go to the children next, preferably together. If you start with the children, your partner may feel ganged up on and resist the change.

1. Choose a peaceful moment for the discussion. It’s generally a mistake to bring up changes at a moment of tension or conflict. You are apt to come across angry and demanding. Other family members are likely to either give in with little intention to follow through, or resist without being open to your proposal. Instead, wait for a calm time when you all can be constructive. A really nice family dinner might be a good opportunity.

2. Say that you would like to discuss family dinners. You’ve been thinking about and reading about family dinnertime, and you have some ideas about improving yours.

3. Say what you are feeling or needing related to the ritual. Example: “I’ve been missing what our family dinners used to give us – a feeling of family togetherness.” Or “I’ve been looking at the Barilla website on family dinners and it’s gotten me thinking how important dinnertime is to me.” Everyone will be waiting for what comes next, so plunge ahead.

4. Offer your new idea tentatively rather than definitively. Once you are ready to make your proposal, keep in mind that family members usually resist feeling pushed into changes in something as important as their meal routines. Examples of proposals that invite discussion rather than give commands: “Maybe we could figure out a way to have family dinners more often – maybe not every night, but more often than we do.” Or “I’d like to talk about turning off the TV and not text messaging during dinner so that we can have some quiet time to talk together.”

5. Ask if the others share your concern and what they think of your idea. Be prepared for a bit of defensiveness, as in “I don’t usually answer my cell phone at dinner” or “We have dinner more often than my friends’ families.” Don’t lecture or scold in response. Ask them if they see family dinners as important. Most adults and children will say yes, but if someone does not, don’t be deterred – and don’t scold them for having bad values. Act like a family leader and reassert the value you hold and your desire for workable changes.

6. Negotiate a trial run of the change. If there is resistance, it’s often best to negotiate an “experiment” to see what happens if you increase the number of your family dinners or have a “no TV” policy for a period of time.

7. Agree to follow up to see how everyone likes the new or modified ritual. People are more willing to try something if they feel they can escape if the change does not work. Even good plans often require adjustments after they are lived with for a time.

These recommendations are the direct route to creating or changing family rituals: bringing up your needs, values and concerns; listening; proposing changes; negotiating before trying something out; and evaluating how it works. A second option is the indirect route.

The Indirect Path to Changing Family Dinnertime

“Indirect” here does not mean manipulative; it means creating an experience before proposing that it become an ongoing practice.

1. Make something happen one time without major comment. You might say, “Why don’t we try something different tonight for dinner?” One mother introduced lighting a candle at dinner in this way. It had the effect of calming the children, and they got to take turns blowing it out when they behaved well during dinner. Another mother introduced a “check-in” without a lot of fanfare: she suggested going around the table with everyone sharing a joy and concern from the day. The practice stuck. The idea here is to give the family a one-time experience without having to negotiate it in advance.

2. Ask if others liked it; if so, discuss how to continue it. If it went well, you can wonder out loud whether it might be nice to keep doing it, either nightly or regularly. If they mostly liked the change, they may have suggestions for making it better. One mother did this with a special Sunday night dinner with tablecloth and fancy dishes. Everyone loved it, and the children and father suggested that in the future they continue having this meal. A Sunday night special dinner became a tradition in the life of this family.

Stay Open to Change

Changing family dinnertimes over the long haul means being open to changing practices that worked well in their day but don’t work anymore. A regular family dinner hour is important, but if 6 p.m. no longer works because of schedules, then change it. Maybe the young children have a snack at 5 p.m. and the family eats together at 7 p.m. If everyone in the family loves the Olympics, there’s nothing wrong with the family gathering for dinner in the TV room for those two weeks. In the same way, families can connect while eating out. The Doherty family has had a 23-year-long weekly pizza ritual at the same restaurant; now it involves three generations. Families do best when they keep changing while holding onto the core of their traditions.

These ideas are adapted from The Intentional Family by William J. Doherty (Avon Books, 1999)