On holidays, I was always stuck at the kids’ table. The best china, crystal goblets, and elegant linens were placed on the grown-up table. The kids’ table was set with the everyday dishes, plastic cups, and lots of paper napkins. The grown-ups feasted on the choicest cuts of turkey and ham, creamy potatoes, savory sauces, fresh vegetables, and real cranberries. Plain meat and potatoes, canned peas, and jellied cranberry sauce were our lot. The grown-ups engaged in animated conversations, gossiping, sharing family stories, discussing important current events and politics. At the kids’ table my time was spent judging burp contests. I also spent a great deal of time protecting my mashed potatoes from the determined efforts of my younger brother whose main goal was to bombard them with squished peas. I longed for the day when I would get to move up to the “big” table.
My nine year old yearnings stemmed from a desire to be more “grown-up” but they also stemmed from a desire to be part of the grown-up world of conversation. Not only did I know the food was better at the grown-ups’ table but my instincts told me the talk was better, too. Real interesting stuff was being discussed and I was missing it.
My instincts were right. Since our days as hunter-gatherers when we sat around a campfire gnawing on wooly mammoth bones, dinnertime conversation has been a major influence in teaching children language and communication skills. Dinnertime conversation raises children’s vocabulary levels, gives them storytelling skills, and teaches them how to speak coherently. Children learn how to ask and answer questions, make verbal observations, and engage in meaningful social interaction. Dinner time conversation also helps kids develop a sense of humor about themselves and others.
The problem is that we seldom eat together as a family anymore. We seldom have a meal with the television turned OFF. Recent studies show that for the first time in human history children are learning basic language and communication skills, not from their immediate and extended families, but from the electronic media. Stop for a moment and think about that. Vocabulary and verbal expression on television are aimed to meet the needs of the lowest common denominator of the general public’s intelligence. Do you really want television teaching your child how to speak?
What can you do? First, work with everyone’s schedules so that you can sit down and eat together as a family once a day, if possible. Perhaps that means getting up earlier for breakfast if various activities preclude having dinner together at night. Perhaps that means eating dinner much earlier or later. And, turn off the television! What you eat and when you eat doesn’t matter. What matters is spending time together as a family. What matters is talking to each other.
Engage your kids in conversation. Try to get beyond the “how was school today” question and the predictable one word “fine” response, by asking more open-ended questions. Share your personal feelings and memories. For example: “I was terrible at math in fourth grade, but you love it. What is it about math that you like?” Tell stories from your own childhood. Discuss current events and don’t bristle if your kids disagree with you. When you share your own opinions be a great model, respectfully explain to them why you feel the way you do. Encourage them to have thoughtful opinions.
This holiday season ban the children’s table, bring the kids up to the big table, and let the conversation begin! If Great Uncle Bob can’t tolerate three year olds, put your preschooler next to imperturbable Uncle Stanley. If Granny Louisa thinks kids have no place at the adult table, tell her that the kids are eager to hear her childhood holiday memories at dinner. Encourage your children to both listen and engage in the dinner conversation. Just keep the stack of paper napkins nearby for the inevitable glass of spilled milk!