I have very clear memories of family dinners at my house as a kid. Some of them involved a lot of laughter (my brother was notorious for making me laugh so hard I would spit my milk out all over my plate). Some of them involved a lot of tears. Some of the hardest discussions we had as a family took place around the table, and I remember them all like it was yesterday. We always sat in the same seats, we always ate around the same time, and even though my Dad was a bit of a workaholic, he was always home for dinner. This tradition continued consistently until my siblings all moved out (I’m the youngest), and I became more involved in high school activities. When we’re all together though to this day, meal time is still an event for my family.
This is a tradition I try to continue in my own family. Unfortunately, due to my husband’s work hours and long commute, meal time is often just me and my son. It’s still an opportunity though to instill important values like appropriate table manners, blessing our food, and a great opportunity for communication. I keep electronic devices off the table during dinner time and unless it’s a special event (like when we had a “picnic” in the living room for the Super Bowl), the TV is off.
I am a child/family therapist and am always amazed by the number of people who I work with who do not sit down together on a regular basis for dinner. I find myself recommending this to more and more families all the time as they talk to me about feeling disconnected or not as involved in their children’s lives as they would like to be. The dinner table is such a great place for open communication. Asking one another how their day was is important, but it’s even more important to ask your child specific questions about their day to avoid the “okay”, “fine” and “nothing” responses that we as parents are always getting (I’m even getting them from my 4 year old). I always encourage parents to ask specific questions about non-structured times at school like lunch or recess to get a good picture of their day. Gym class can also give you some insight. Ask questions like, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” or “Who did you play with/what did you do at recess?” “Who’s team were you on in gym class?” If they seem to be sitting next to the same kids or hanging out with the same kids on the playground on a regular basis, that’s a good sign regarding how they’re doing socially. If not, it might be something to explore further with them or with the school.
Another great option for kids who are less communicative is to have them rate their day on a scale of 1 to 10. I am a HUGE fan of scales and use them constantly in sessions. There is such a difference between a teenage girl saying, “I had a bad day” versus “I’m a three today” when they are typically at an 8. It’s also a good way for you to gauge how their days are going on a consistent basis. If you are hearing them say that they are lower than a five on most days, it’s a red flag that something is going on. Another option for non-communicators is to have them rate their day on a 10-point scale and write it down in a notebook or journal when they get home from school. If they want to talk more about it during dinner or later that evening great, but at least this way parents know where they stand. I find that parents really like this in cases where their child had a bad day at school but they had no idea. Fast forward two hours later when their son/daughter is freaking out over the smallest event and they’re wondering where that behavior came from. This way if your child rates their day poorly, you’ll be on alert for trouble.
This stuff is certainly not a new concept, but something that we sometimes get away from as we get sucked into our busy day-to-day lives. Kids are more involved in activities, have more homework and get less sleep than ever before. It’s always good to be reminded of the basics from time to time. Sure, everyone’s busy and it’s probably not feasible to get everyone to sit down together every single night, but it’s so important to make the effort to do it as often as you can. I promise you, it’s worth it.