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12/14/14blog post

5 tips for better dinner convos with kids

“Why should I rush home to have dinner with my kids when my efforts to talk with them are met with silence and indifference that borders on contempt?” asked a dad at a recent workshop.

Many parents voiced similar concerns, but quickly justified their adolescents’ misbehavior with “that’s typical of the teenage years.”

The fact that something may be common doesn’t make it right or an inevitable stage of growing up. Lots of parents raise teens who are communicative and emotionally engaged with their families, not sullen and disrespectful.

Here’s the advice I gave to that dad.

  1. Discuss the issue directly. Get your kids’ perspective about what is going on during dinner time. I find that individual discussions with the kids generally work better than a family meeting. Listen and try to understand their perspective without becoming argumentative or defensive. Explain that you want to respect their privacy and independence while continuing to be a part of their lives.
  2. Avoid corrections and lectures. Many kids tell me they dread meal times because they feel they are being interrogated by their parents. Revealing any important information about issues results in reprimands. Why would you talk about real issues if it only gets you in trouble?
  3. It begins with you. It’s hard for parents to be genuine with their kids. When was the last time you spoke about your own fears and frustrations at the dinner table? I’m not suggesting that you be open about everything with your kids, but it’s important for them to see you as a real person. Let them know about some of your doubts and disappointments, and what you’ve learned from your failures.
  4. Ask questions without interrogating. Never ask a question that begins with “Why,” or say “How was school today?” Those inquiries rarely work. Ask questions about other kids to find out what’s going on at school. “Are kids at school talking much about what happened in Ferguson?” “Is sexting common at your school?” Remember that this is a conversation and not an inquisition. Timing is everything. Strong declarations of opinion (“Sexting is pretty stupid.”) are guaranteed conversation-terminators.
  5. Book of Questions. I’ve had lots of success using various books (e.g., the Kids’ Book of Questions by Gregory Stock) to prompt conversations with kids in my office or around the dinner table. These can be lots of fun and you’ll be surprised by what you may learn. Avoid the common mistakes of giving up on your teen, justifying their behavior as a “stage,” or tolerating rude behavior.