Using technology to babysit buys a moment’s peace at dinner: Developing conversational skills gets a lifetime of delightful dinnertime companionship.
I witnessed two father/child conversations this week.
On Tuesday, I was eating in a restaurant next to a father and daughter out to dinner. My guess is that the daughter was around four. The pair sat down, and Dad immediately pulled out the iPad and set it up for her. Dad quietly sipped his glass of wine. For the moment I will put aside my own personal rant about the blurps, bings and dings from the video disturbing my own meal and focus on the idea that ten years from now this father is going to be lucky to get any conversation out of his child at dinner at all.
Obviously, I don’t know what their day or their week has been. Perhaps Dad and Daughter have already spent a couple hours playing together. Perhaps the iPad at the dinner table is screen time she earned for being cooperative about doing her chores all week. Perhaps they had a long conversation while driving to the restaurant. Perhaps going out to eat is a big treat and it is the only time Daughter is allowed screen time at the table.
But for the moment, let’s go with the assumption that as Dad was in his business clothes, he probably picked Daughter up from child care at 6:00. Hopefully they did have a good conversation about her day in the car. But it would not surprise me if she had access to the iPad in the car, too. And just as at dinner, Dad was not watching it with her. He was not engaging with her about what she was watching. Not commenting, not asking questions, not explaining what might be new concepts.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have certainly gone to dinner when my daughter was young and brought coloring books or other quiet games with the hope that she would quietly entertain herself. Especially as a single mom with just one daughter at home, I spent a lot of time playing with my kid, and if I could snatch a moment of self-absorbed contemplation, I certainly did. Likewise, we go to dinner with my nephew almost weekly and for much of the meal he is absorbed in whatever book he is reading. That is okay with me because I recognize that sitting at the table for more than an hour—as we do most weeks—is a lot to ask of a nine year old. Nonetheless, once the food does arrive, we do get his attention and he joins in the family conversation.
Conversation Is an Art
Conversation is an art. Children need to practice it. Adults have the responsibility to scaffold the learning by helping kids structure their answers. Later in the week I saw a dad do this beautifully with his daughter. She was also around four—maybe a little younger than the girl from earlier in the week. He started by asking her what she had done during Outside Playtime at school. She answered I don’t know. Instead of letting that stop the conversation dead in its tracks, he asked her to think a moment and assured her that she would remember. Then he just looked at her quietly and patiently. When she said she still didn’t remember, he coached her: He said, “Start by saying, ‘Usually during Outside Playtime at school, I _______.’” She filled in the blank and said, “go on the slide.” He praised her, but had her repeat her answer using the whole phrase. She repeated the complete sentence, and then without prompting she continued on saying, “but today I played in the sand box with Jesse.” Then Dad said, “Oh! Tell me about that!” By now Daughter was off on a roll and she shared quite a bit about her sandbox play. Clever Dad. Chances are if he had askedwhat she had played, he would have gotten a one-word answer.
Conversation is a Two-Way Street
Now, what happened after this conversation was the part that impressed me the most. When Daughter had finished telling about her day, Dad said, “I had a good day, too.” When his daughter didn’t pick up on his conversational gambit, Dad reminded her, “Honey, when you are talking to people, the conversation has to go back and forth. I asked you about your day. Now you should ask me about my day.” Daughter perked up and looked right at her dad: “Tell me now, Daddy!” While Dad shared a few details, she kept her attention on him the whole time.
If Dad keeps up gently prompting his daughter through having a full conversation, imagine the benefits they will both reap. Not only will he stay in touch with his daughter as she grows up, she will have an awareness of him as a person who also does interesting things and has thoughts and feelings of his own as an individual. No doubt, over the years, their conversations will range far and wide. Remember, connection is a key to effective parenting, and conversation is an easy way to feel connected with a person.
In January 2015, Mandy Len Catron wrote an essay published in The New York Times called, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”. In the essay she tells how she and a mutual acquaintance increased their trust and intimacy using the 36 questions from a study done in the 90’s by Arthur Aron et al designed to see if you could make people fall in love with each other. The study found you could. Carton found she did. Imagine using these questions—or questions like these—over the years to connect to your kids.
The Cost of Not Developing Conversational Skills
Now let’s ago back to that other Dad from earlier in the week. Presently he has the easy love that a small child gives her parent. To a four year old, you are the sun, the moon and at the stars all connected. But over the years, as a child makes the shift to peers, parents who have not already established conversational habits have to work much harder to not drift apart. Just because you are physically at the table with your kids does not mean you are reaping the many (many!) benefits of eating together. Harvard professor and researcher, Dr. Anne K. Fishel, points out that, “the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality”. The more we get sucked into our electronic gadgets, the more parents have to systematically teach their children good interpersonal skills. In less distracted eras, family members looked to each other for entertainment. Card games, board games, story telling, and singing together were some of the only sources of entertainment available. All of these required families to not merely be near each other, but to actually talk to each other.
Keep the Flow of Conversation Going
Once you have gotten them to the table (and banned the distractions), getting your kids to talk to you is a two-part process. First, help your kids give detailed, complete answers to daily questions like, “How was your day?” Teach them that while that might be a courtesy question out in public to which a polite “fine” is acceptable, when you ask it, you are looking for some real sharing without having to pull teeth. Of course, for your part, you have to be a good listener who absorbs what your kids are telling you before you jump to criticize or solve. Your primary job is to keep the flow of conversation going. Use prompts like Really? What else? Tell me more. How do you feel about that? Especially in the short run, listening is much more important than your response. If you are really worried about something that comes up, I suggest you circle on back to it at a later time—maybe in private at bedtime.
Getting Creative and Thinking Outside the Box to Get to Your Kids Talking
The second part of getting your kids to talk is coming up with good questions. You want to balance questions about daily life with questions that will expand your kids’ thinking. The Family Dinner Project suggests questions like, “If you joined the circus, what would your circus act be?” As someone who long had fantasies about running away to join the circus, I love that question. (I would have definitely chosen being a trapeze artist, in case you were wondering!)
TiffinTalk—A Tool to Help
Another fabulous resource is a company called TiffinTalk. TiffinTalk creators Kat Rowan and Michael Friesen have written over 4000 cards each with a question that provides “thought-provoking, open-ended questions that prompt meaningful conversations – no matter what the age of your child.” 4000! And every card is different. That is extraordinary. The cards are boxed into groups by age from preschool through high school. Like Arthur Aron’s questions designed to help two people fall in love by increasing intimacy, TiffinTalk’s questions start out more general and broad and go deeper over the course of the each themed week. Themes from the boxes for 6-9 year olds, for example, include topics like Clean or Messy, Homes & Houses, Being More Than You, How to (Not) Argue with Adults, and Firsts. These cards are not games; each are meant to be personalized cards from parent to child and are meant to be shared in one-on-one, face-to-face discussions.
In June 2015, I interviewed TiffinTalk Creative Director and CEO Kat Rowan. One of the points we touched upon was how opening the lines of conversation on a host of topics makes it much easier to bring up more difficult topics like death or sex education. If you and your child are not used to talking about touchier topics, when the time comes to bring them up, they feel much heavier and weighted than they need to be. In fact, some parents never do have “the Sex Talk” because it seems too overwhelming—a mountain when it could be a mole hole. On the other hand, parents who have been exploring a range of themes like the ones TiffinTalk provides have likely already dealt with a lot of related topics, having discussed questions about relationships, friendships, how dress affects how people see us, our bodies, etc. TiffinTalk’s boxes of cards (beautifully produced) are complete and comprehensive. By the time you work your way through the whole series, there will be very little you have not touched on. The inclusion of blank cards allow parents lots of flexibility to address questions that occur to them, while the themes give the parents something concrete to fall back on.
Of course, you may be able to come up with lots of topics on your own. If that is the case, you probably already know the joy of having kids who are mentally present and eager to join you at the table—a daily touch point of love, warmth and connection.
You will never regret putting energy into teaching your children the Art of Conversation. Well, you may regret how much you miss their sparkling wit when they grow up and go away, but I trust they will come home to visit!
About the Author
Elisabeth Stitt is the founder of Joyful Parenting Coaching and the author of the book Parenting as a Second Language. Before that Elisabeth was a middle school English teacher for 25 years.