The One Trick That Got My Family Talking Around the Dinner Table

published Aug 4, 2021
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Weeks ago, my husband accused me of routinely disappearing just as our family sits down to dinner. I’ll admit that yes, I do this. But in my defense I assumed it went unnoticed, masked by the hullabaloo that surrounds mealtime with a toddler and a 7-year-old.

It’s not that I don’t want to eat with my family, or that I don’t understand the value of gathering around the dinner table. The benefits of regular family meals are well-documented, leading to higher self esteem, dips in depression rates, and lowered risk of future substance abuse among children, just to name a few. But even as my rational mind has understood the critical importance of breaking bread with the people I love, listening to their bickering, whining, and bathroom humor sometimes feels like too much to bear. In lieu of working to craft a beautiful moment of connection with my family, I started mentally running away — where no strained conversations or unpleasant jokes could find me. 

Why was it so hard to have the peaceful, meaningful dinner experience all the parenting manuals glorify?

Why was it so hard to have the peaceful, meaningful dinner experience all the parenting manuals glorify? Julia Wright, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with Smart Love Family Services in Chicago, Illinois, told me the key is meeting our kids where they are developmentally. 

“A child’s first language is non-verbal which then merges with the language of play and metaphor. This is why kids so often freeze up or shy away when receiving direct verbal communication and they begin to talk and share more while playing,” Wright said. “Sometimes if we wait, listen, and play alongside our children we will learn a lot about the experiences they are having in their week.”

If Wright’s solution to dinnertime crickets and chaos was engaging kids in play, Sofia Mendoza, an LCSW in Long Beach, California, had the perfect plan to do so. 

A Game-Changing, Therapist-Approved Idea 

As we gear up for a year of in-person schooling and all its accompanying activities, I wanted to be intentional about bringing my family back to center at the end of each day. That’s why my heart flipped with delight upon hearing Mendoza’s idea for connecting more meaningfully around the table. 

“Keep a conversation jar with different open-ended, get-to-know-me questions,” she said. “Write them on strips of paper that can be pulled out and the entire family can answer.” When it comes to family engagement, Mendoza is all about curiosity and playfulness as an inroad to strengthen connections — and this dinnertime exercise promised to flex both equally. Naturally, I gave it a shot. 

No one has an imagination quite like a second-grader, so I enlisted the brain power of my oldest to get us started. Together, she and I drummed up a handful of silly questions, scribbled them out, and tucked them away inside an old spaghetti jar. 

Here are a few of our favorites: 

  • If you could live the plot of any book or your favorite video game, what would it be and why? 
  • If you were facing disaster and could have any three characters on your side, who would you choose? 
  • If you could combine any two animals to make the perfect pet, what would you pick? 

On the first night we planned to use the jar, our sense of celebration was palpable. My oldest and I couldn’t wait to get to the table, eager to see what ridiculous questions each one of us would have to answer. In fact, the sheer joy surrounding this exercise overshadowed many moments that previously made me bristle. So what if the toddler refused to eat anything but cheese? We were hanging on her every word, waiting to hear what vegetable she’d transform into a rocket and ride to the moon. 

What I loved most about the conversation jar is not that it sent my family into fits of red-faced giggles, or that it lent festivity to an otherwise boring pasta dinner. Those were delightful side effects, of course. But what was so special about this ordinary jar was its ability to invite us to shake off the stress of the day together. There, around the dinner table, my little family of four found a way to set aside the annoyances of a hectic mealtime and recalibrate through play.