How was your day? It’s a question that reeks of small talk but at the dinner table, these four words can be just what every family needs for a meal of shared laughter or even serious talk.
Now, most young children naturally enjoy talking about their activities. You can get them talking with little or no effort at all. However, it can be quite a challenge to get older kids, especially teenagers, involved in the conversation. For this reason, parents should learn to ask good questions—simple but meaningful and interesting enough to engage their kids so that, before they know it, they are already babbling non-stop about their innermost thoughts and feelings.
When initiating family conversations, avoid “yes” or “no” questions, which could abruptly end in awkward, dead silence. Instead, set a happy and positive mood by beginning with good news. Ask about the good stuff that happened during the day and give affirmation for any achievement that is shared, no matter how small.
Parents, make sure your questions do not come out as “threatening” to your kids. For example, if you ask outright, “Did you pass your Science quiz?” and your son thinks he did not do well, he might hesitate to give an answer. But if you first ask him about how his day went and if anything fun happened that day, he would be more willing—even excited—to spill the beans When he has run out of interesting stories to share, then you can ask about other things, such as if there is anything that is bothering him. This is where the worries, struggles, and not-so-good news come in.
Watch and listen
Depending on the age of your children, their struggles can range from losing a basketball game or feeling jittery about a school project, to having a major argument with a friend or being rejected by a long-time crush. From their reactions and replies, you can gauge whether the concern is real and how serious their dilemma is.
Listen closely to the words spoken. Keep in mind, however, that younger children may not be able to express their feelings and thoughts accurately. Because of their limited vocabulary and comprehension, some may use the wrong words for the right feeling. Even adults sometimes have trouble finding the perfect words to express themselves, especially when under pressure or stress. So be patient in trying to understand what is being said as well as the things left unspoken.
Be sensitive as well to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, restlessness, silence, hesitation, and discomfort. Moderate the conversation, but try not to interrupt the storytelling. Show interest and compassion instead of immediately reacting with blame, criticism, or worse, a lecture.
Tell your story
Another way to encourage a child to open up about an ongoing struggle is for the parents to share about a setback or challenge that they themselves have faced, how they dealt with it, and what they learned from the experience. Of course, the struggle shared by the parents should be something the child can relate to, such as having to learn a new skill and how they kept trying until they got it right.
Tales of success after difficulties are always inspiring, and stories with a happy ending are both satisfying and encouraging. Often, just hearing their parents’ stories of their struggles and eventual success can help children deal with their own challenges.
When it’s complicated
Some topics may be way too complex to cover during mealtime, so don’t expect to resolve major issues over mac ‘n’ cheese. As parents, it is important to know when to divert the conversation to another topic and when to move the discussion to a more appropriate time and place. This isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
If your daughter is in the mood to talk, it may be wiser to not break her momentum. Just let her pour out her thoughts and feelings first. Then, without being patronizing, gradually shift the conversation to a lighter topic—but not without first acknowledging her sentiments. Do not interrupt abruptly; otherwise, your daughter may think you’re ignoring or making light of her concern or that you are simply not interested in what she is going through. As the meal ends, you can invite her to have dessert, over which you can slowly raise the topic again and have some serious heart-to-heart talk.
What is essential is that the parents assure their children that they are there for them and that their children can approach them whenever they need to talk. Most importantly, always end the family meal on a positive note. Find something to affirm in everyone or to be thankful for in every situation. The head of the family can go through the main points of the conversation, encouraging the whole family to pray for each other.
Sense of Family
It can be surprising how little we know about the daily lives of the people we share our home—and meals—with. With the proper encouragement, children can develop the confidence to talk about their thoughts, feelings, dreams, struggles, fears, and worries. Then, the sharing of daily life stories within the family can become a regular habit, even away from the dinner table.
When we realize that every member of the family goes through something – both good and bad – we can learn to be more compassionate, sensitive, understanding, accepting, and forgiving. The dinner table can become a wonderful opportunity to model important values to our children, a place where a strong sense of family is built and experienced, with everyone helping to make each other’s burdens lighter and easier to bear.
The author thanks Ana Lou Cortez Aseron, registered psychologist and guidance counselor at San Sebastian College, and Cesca Amurao, kindergarten coordinator and former guidance counselor at St. Theresa’s College, for sharing valuable insights for this article.