How to make dinner conversation with kids ever-so-slightly less torturous

Dear World’s Okayest Mom,

Dinner is pure torture in our house. I make us all put away our phones and turn off the television like I’m supposed to. But instead of quality family time, I get slouching and pouting and one-word answers. It is so painful that my wife and I are ready to give up and allow phones. How do I make my kids talk to me?

Thanks,
The Silent Diner

Dear Silent Diner,

Every night, there are millions of tables around the world mirror yours: parents trying to do family dinners right and children thwarting their every attempt.

When I was first faced with a desultory “Fine,” from my kids, I tried requiring three juicy adjectives. This resulted in, “Awesome! Awesomely awesome! Great!” from my son and, “Terrible. Horrible. Bad,” from my daughter. (This illustrates very clearly their innate personalities.) Then, I tried mixing up my questions. Instead of “How was your day?” I would ask who they ate lunch with, what they studied in science, who has a crush on who. This caused a marginal improvement to their monosyllabic answers: “Jonathan. Earth’s atmosphere. Nobody.” But none of it felt like actual human conversation.

“Highs and lows” worked for awhile: each of us had to share the highest and lowest point of our day. After we convinced my daughter that even the worst days have a highest point, this tactic led to some information-packed conversations for a while, until the repetitive and depressing answers ground me down: “Low: school. High: coming home.”

Next, we tried “thankfuls”: Each of us had to list three things we were thankful about that day, and they had to be specific. “My mom” wasn’t enough, but instead, “My mom made my lunch when I was running late this morning and was only slightly pissy about it.” This bought us a few more months of something vaguely resembling ‘dialogue.’

However, the most effective tool I’ve found—stolen from a brilliant friend—is the Conversation Jar. It sits on our dining room table, an old Mason jar filled with slips of paper, each containing a thought-provoking question. Anytime I get a slouching, mumbled, “Fine,” I ask someone to draw a question. Most of the time, this works. When someone boycotts, the rest of us have fun making up ridiculous answers for them until they laugh. Or clear their plate and huff off to their room.

Here are some of the questions in our Conversation Jar, as well as a printable PDF of Conversation Jar questions with even more options (BYO Mason jar).

  • If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?
  • What skill or attribute are you most proud of?
  • Is it ever okay to lie? Why or why not?
  • If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you want to be? (Substitute color, food, book, etc. for “animal”.)
  • What is one of your favorite childhood memories? (Little kids love this one because they get to think about, “Back when I was little…”)
  • If you were Supreme Ruler of the Universe, what’s the first law you would put in place?
  • If you were in trouble, scared or upset, who could you talk to?
  • If you could only eat three foods for the rest of your life, which would you choose? (You can make variations on this: three desserts, three musicians, three books, three movies, three people…)
  • What do you wish our family did more often?
  • What makes a good friend? Who has been a good friend to you? Who have you been a good friend to?
  • When you think about your future, what are you looking forward to? What are you worried about?
  • What’s your favorite thing to wear? Why?
  • Think of someone you look up to. What do you admire about that person?
  • Do you believe in ghosts?
  • What’s the difference between having a crush, being “in love” and loving someone?
  • Think of a time when you disagreed with what someone said or did. What happened? What did you learn?

We also keep a stack of blank strips of paper for people to write their own questions and enter them for discussion. My favorite was one that asked, “Why do I always have to empty the dishwasher and you never make my sister do it?” because apparently, this passive-aggressive sideswipe is how you express grievances in our house. But usually, something interesting happens.

(You might also like this post on teaching your kids ping-pong-ping, a.k.a. the rules of conversation.)

May these tips and tools get you the conversations you crave, Silent Diner.

Good luck,
World’s Okayest Mom

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