7 ways to get kids talking at the dinner table

kids at the dinner table
© K Martinko

Starting a mealtime discussion with children can feel like pulling teeth, but these ideas will make it easier.

Family dinner is often idealized as an intimate half-hour or so of deep discussion and personal sharing among family members, a time for divulging concerns while brainstorming solutions together.

That is a fantasy.

In real life, it consists of me and my husband begging our children to share information about their days and getting monosyllabic responses, while they complain about various aspects of the meal and ask for water, salt, ketchup, butter, and napkins. They giggle uncontrollably when one makes a rude noise, and chaos mounts as cutlery gets dropped accidentally. Then someone falls out of their chair, and my vision of family bonding time implodes.

So, in hopes of salvaging this time and moving it closer to my ideal, I've been looking up dinner table conversation starters for kids. My hope is that, by starting an interesting discussion with them, they'll be more focused on talking and less prone to silly distractions and poor behavior. I share the following ideas because I suspect this is a common problem among parents.

1. Mad Sad Glad

This brilliant suggestion comes from Andy Rosentrach. He says it's the most consistently successful of all this dinner-table methods. Each family member has to share 3 things from their day that made them mad, sad, and glad.

"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."

2. Best and Worst

I've been trying this for a while and it works pretty well, although we often get derailed and forget to go all the way around the table. Ask each person to share the best and worst moment of their day, parents included.

3. What are you grateful for?

We do this every night and, curiously, it's our littlest kid who loves this tradition the most. He leaps right in as soon as we serve up the plates, saying, "I am thanktha for..."

4. The Negative Assertion

Another one of Andy's suggestions, this is reverse psychology at its best. Make an outrageous statement about the kids' day and they'll be tripping over each other to correct it. For example, "What a pity you weren't able to play outside at all today" or "It must have been awful that your teacher was absent."

5. Would you rather...?

Throw out a comparison and let the kids run with it. (The 6- to 8-year-old demographic especially loves comparisons.) Would you rather go to your school or Hogwarts? Would you rather be a T-rex or a stegosaurus? Would you rather be the world's fastest runner or the world's faster swimmer? Would you rather sky-dive or scuba dive? Would you rather eat worms or cockroaches? Would you rather travel to Antarctica or the Sahara Desert? Would you rather ride a dragon or a unicorn?

6. Tell a story

Kids love stories about their parents' lives. Share a story from your childhood, even a simple anecdote, and it will lead to curious questions. Or talk about your own day, something you've heard in the news or from someone else. Kids are sponges, eager for information about the world, and there's no better filter through which to hear it than a parent.

7. Light a candle

Add candlelight to your dinner table and turn down the lights. The dark, romantic atmosphere will excite children and make them more focused on the meal. They'll be more open to talking seriously and less prone to silliness.

7 ways to get kids talking at the dinner table
Starting a mealtime discussion with children can feel like pulling teeth, but these ideas will make it easier.

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