Things to teach our children: mealtime conversation

In the midst of this parenting whirl, I wonder sometimes what I’ve forgotten to teach our children, or what I haven’t covered in enough detail.   I’m strong in some areas.  If I didn’t have help with dishes and laundry, I would crumble under the load– or the laundry room and kitchen counters would crumble under theirs.  So I have been reasonably systematic at training kids to help around the house. They are competent kids, and they know how to pitch in and help out.

But in other areas I feel I have been a bit haphazard.  I’ve recently been jotting things down as I see concerns or gaps.  I thought it might be useful to write on this topic periodically– both to lay out my thoughts and plans, and hopefully also to get some input from others also on this path.

One topic high on my mind recently is that of mealtime conversation. At our table the adults and the littlest ones (ages 8 and 6) are the most frequent talkers.  My young teens just sit quietly, replying to direct questions in minimal ways, and in most cases not really participating. For awhile I have been wishing for more interaction, but I’ve hesitated to really make a big deal about it. I know that young teens are sometimes not especially talkative– I get that way myself sometimes — and frankly, I wasn’t sure if I needed one more thing to bug kids about.

Even as I tried to talk myself out of my concern, the quiet from half the table continued to bother me.  That in itself was probably a message —  the vibe was less than ideal.  And as I thought about it further, I remembered my litmus-test questions– the ones I’ve returned to over and over as a mom when considering kid-behaviors:

  • Is this a behavior that I want to see more of?
  • Will it benefit our kids in the future?

The answer to both was a resounding No.   I want our children to be able to gracefully converse at mealtime.  It makes the meal more pleasant for those around them right now, and is also a skill that polite, well-rounded adults possess.  Meals are a time to participate, to connect, whether it be with your boss, your fiance’s family, or ‘just’ with your close family around the dinner table on a Tuesday evening.

But how to encourage talk?

We’ve had moderate success in encouraging conversation by asking a ‘question-of-the-day’ for each child to answer in turn.  Usually I ask questions along the lines of:  What is one thing you learned in math today?  Tell us about one fun thing you did this week? What was the worst thing that happened to you this week?  What are you looking forward to doing this summer?

But the silent ones tended to lapse back into silence as soon as their turn to answer was done, at least until I fixed them with my gimlet stare and demanded more participation– which didn’t really add a friendly vibe to the meal.

Once recently I got fed up with the deafening silence from most of the kids, but was determined not to be the one to remind them to participate.   Finally at the end of the meal, I announced that the silent ones would now be singing a song for the family.  Three red-faced kids giggled their sheepish way to the end of the table where they treated us to a two verses of “My God is So Great”.

Everyone ended with smiles on their faces.  I ended up feeling like at least they had participated in some way.  I’m not sure if that was the ideal way to handle the issue, but it did make the point that everyone was expected to participate.  And I’m pretty sure they decided they’d rather talk than sing at the next meal.  I hope.

I’d love to hear how others have encouraged quiet kids to talk just a little at mealtime.  I’m not expecting orations here– but I have heard these very same kids have long chatty conversations with friends.  I’d like them get in the habit of being gracious to their family as well.  Just a couple sentences of interactive conversation at family meals, ideally without needing to be prompted — or threatened with singing. 🙂   I’m still thinking about the issue and wondering how best to reach that goal.

If you have something to add to this conversation, feel free to comment below.  If you have a blog of your own and would like to share your thoughts there, just sign in with the ‘Linky’ widget below, and provide the direct link to the post on your blog.  That way others interested in this topic can easily click over to your blog to hear what you have to say.  Thanks, everyone– I’m looking forward to more ideas!


  1. Angela Mayer says:

    Sometimes getting my talkers to be quiet for a few minutes is all it takes for my quiet ones to speak up. I am a lot more talkative than my husband and he doesn’t jump into a conversation the way I would. I have to be quiet for a while and let him think about his response if I want him to talk. A couple of my kids are the same way. So a few moments of uncomfortable silence sometimes brings about a more balanced conversation, whether it be at the dinner table or the school table. Occasionally I can see that they have something to say but don’t want to jump in, so I might ask them what they think about whatever it is we’re talking about. Good topic!

    • Thanks, Angela. Natural tendencies are definitely a big factor here. And I like the idea of mom being a graceful facilitator, gently drawing out those for whom speaking out is less natural.

      • I agree entirely! Personally, I’m not a big talker, and either is my middle daughter–indeed it has to be quiet for a little while for myself or my daughter to gather our thoughts so that we are able to add to the conversation.

  2. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    I participated in an event where I was not my normal talkative self. After a couple of nights of this, the facilitator reorganized how we sat so that the quiet ones sat nearer and the ones who would talk more often.

    Of course in my case, just warming up and getting to know the group and what my part was supposed to be helped as well.

    But maybe changing up who sits next to who around the table would help?

  3. Ooh, can’t wait to hear these responses. We have a similar problem–the youngest kids dominate the conversation, and the teens are silent. Then I get grumpy when the teens keep seeking my attention at 9 or 10 at night when I’m hoping for some privacy. My thought is that if they felt more space to be involved in conversations earlier in the evening, they wouldn’t feel that need so much at night.

  4. Why not encourage the talkative kids to ask the quiet kids a question about their day. Then it’s not you bugging them to talk, plus the younger kids can learn that being a good conversationalist means inviting others into the conversation.

  5. Very interesting topic!! My teen son is one of the loudest at the table, although with his increasing appetite he now keeps quieter with his mouth more full of food. 🙂 I find that are mealtimes aren’t always an incredibly pleasant time together and that makes me very discouraged. I think we spend quite a bit of time together, so sitting down at the table doesn’t seem like a great treat (whereas if we never saw each other it would be different). I love the idea of asking questions! That would help get conversation flowing I think. Love Devon’s point in having the little ones ask the bigger kids a question. I can imagine my girls would have a hay-day with that one!!!!! They’d be sure to ask something entirely private. Hhmm, maybe I shouldn’t … sure is temping. 😉

  6. I would ask the olders to play host/hostess for the evening, and sit back. They would be responsible for making sure everyone felt included and keeping the conversation going, for reminding the littles to let there be some silent pauses, and for making eye contact and engaging as people answer their questions.

    We have listeners and talkers, too. The listeners really don’t enjoy the limelight, and it is harder on them to talk with everyone looking at them. But I think you are right that polite conversation is a skill that should be practiced. It just won’t look the same on everyone.

    Great topic!

  7. Mikaila says:

    In our family, instead of saying grace before a meal, we all take turns saying what we’re thankful for. It often takes the whole meal to get through our family of nine because of questions and comments added to the conversation. We make it very interactive and even really little kids can think of something they’re thankful for. (I sometimes write them down for a smile down the road.)

  8. 🙂 i have two very small kids (2 years and 2 months), so i am just thinking without too much experience… 🙂
    it might be neat to have a child (and you and your husband, as well) in charge of conversation during a meal… they have to drive the conversation with questions and topics…kind of like a moderator… 🙂 that way, they get the opportunity to discuss something they might want to talk about (but may not come up in regular every day conversation)… you can have a “box” of topics for them to choose from. you could have that child choose the topic in the morning at breakfast so they can be thinking about it all day (and the other kids, too, because sometimes, we all need a little help with ideas…when the moderator needs help, maybe another sibling can step in and give a question/idea?) examples of topics….how about something like “fear” – and they have to talk to each person about things they fear…or maybe what they would do if they were in a fearful situation (like face to face with a lion, or something like that)…
    when the child isn’t the moderator, they will still be called upon by their siblings, too…everyone is part of the conversation… of course, you and your husband may have to help out sometimes, too…
    i’m sure there will be days where the conversation will flow beautifully…and there may be days where it’s a bit more choppy… either way, it will help take some of the stress off of YOU and will help the kids learn to think, think quickly, and participate in something really special each day – time with your family 🙂 🙂

    hope it helps 🙂

  9. Robin (and Kathleen),
    I LOVE the idea of putting a different person in charge of conversation each meal!! Thank you!


  10. My best friend just gave me a set of card with questions on them called Table Topics. Lots of fun and interesting questions! I always always play “The Question Game” with my Young Life girls. Basically, there are categories and you go around in a circle. One person starts by picking a category, then the next person has to come up with a question in that category. Then everyone in the circle has to answer the question, including the questioner. It gets everyone involved and keeps things creative!

  11. We have topical questions at our table whenever we have extended family over. We usually make it really silly so that we keep meal time lighthearted and enjoyable. My kids are still young, so conversation is always flowing no matter what. But to keep us all in the same conversation, the topic starters are great. And I can imagine that if a teenager has time to think about the questions during the day (especially if they know they will be the host/hostess) it would be a help and not make them feel like they are being picked on.

  12. Sophie says:

    I would love it if mine could get in on that talking/teaching 🙂

  13. Lorrie says:

    We have the opposite problem, my almost 13yr old daughter dominates the conversation. Then our almost 10 yr. old son chimes in exuberantly and the 4 and 6 yr old boys are doing loud silly stuff because they are not getting attention. We realize the younger ones demand attention more often so we don’t want to squelch the older ones. We also have a lot of talking at bed time probably for the same reason. Meal time and, in general, the time when Dad gets home is manic. They are all trying to talk etc. It is sometimes nerve racking! My poor 84 year old Father comes over for lunch every Sun. and, even though we prompt them and give them” the eyes”, we realy struggle with the same thing then too. They realy need to learn conversational manners.

    Sorry Mary, this doesn’t realy help you, I was just thinking it is similar -trying to reach our kids with the idea of thinking about how they handle the dinner table and meeting other’s needs.

  14. Lauren says:

    I really liked what Devon said — ‘being a good conversationalist means inviting others into the conversation’. The silent ones need to be concerned with the people sitting around them, and the chatty ones need to be talking TO someone, and not just chatting. We struggle to find a balance with this – I was brought up with dinner conversation, and my husband was not – he is the silent one at the table! I do think this is an important social skill, that needs to be aquired as soon as possible! There is a time to indulge our personal desire for peace and quiet, and a time to set our own needs aside for the situation we are in.

  15. We can really relate to this dinner table conversation issue. Our 3 older adopted kids came from a culture where they got thumped on the head with a wooden spoon if they talked at the dinner table. Our best mealtimes have only come in recent years (they are age 23, 23 and 20 now!) when somebody thought of this table time game. You pick a topic like movies, countries, cities, etc. The first person says the name of a movie that starts with the letter “A”, the second person says a movie that starts with the letter “B”, and you go around the table until the letter “Z”. Movies as a topic really suits teens (and young adults) because that is what they are into and it reminds them of their favorite movies which always brings up conversation about the movie or when or who they saw it with. The younger kids can participate just as well too. This also works well with cities because they can use the names of cities from their home country and that always brings up conversation in between too. You could also use animal names, books, songs, musicians, whatever your kids or family are into.

  16. I’ve been thinking about this and pondering why we don’t really have this problem in our family. Everyone talks at the dinner table, some more than others, but I’ve never noticed a huge disparity in participation. As a result, I’ve paid more attention to our dinner table conversation over the past two evenings and noticed a few things.

    First, my husband and I tend to be more focused on talking to each other. As I write that I realize it sounds bad, but what I mean is that he and I converse whether the children join in or not. The children are welcome to join in our conversation if they have something to say, but from a young age, they have not been allowed just to make noise. Maybe it’s that whole phone phenomena… the only time children want your attention is when the phone rings. At dinner, the only time the children want to have a conversation is when the mother and father are trying to talk to each other.

    The second thing I’ve noticed is that my husband is very good at keeping tabs on who is participating and will ask that specific child a specific question to draw them into the conversation. He doesn’t do this in a punitive way, but he really enjoys hearing everyone’s thoughts and is careful that he pays attention to each child.

    Lastly, we have had limited success with canned discussion topics. (This is not to say they aren’t worthwhile or that other families can’t benefit from them, but they just haven’t worked for ours.) Our children react to them much the same way they react to supposed learning ‘games’. Nothing will turn the masses sullen more quickly. Instead, my husband and I like to discuss… between our selves, of course, the other 9 can listen in if they like… whatever interesting thing we heard or read that day. This inevitably brings up questions from the groups and the conversation is off.

    One last thing we’ve been doing recently with our oldest. Sometimes a question will arise, either at dinner or throughout the day, which neither my husband nor I can answer. We then asign an older child to research that question and bring the answer back to the dinner table the next night. It is sort of like a little impomptu oral report and has been remarkably well-received, mainly I think because we only do this when the question arises from the child doing the research.

    I’m not sure anything I’ve written will help (thought I’ve written a lot), but I hope you find a solution to your non-conversation difficulty.

  17. We have an opposite problem in our house – too much loud talking. Right now I don’t have quiet teenagers. I have four elementary aged kids who are constantly competing for attention even though they get plenty of attention. We have actually had to institute raising hands at the dinner table because the kids tend to talk over one another. Not a great thing for a mother who gets stressed having too many auditory inputs. 😉 Truthfully, lately I have become so incredibly horrified with their table manners. Our newest son eats with his hands all the time even though he has perfectly good utensils to use and knows how to use them. I think he’s just attention-seeking but the others are picking up on it. Some nights I feel like I have a group of barbarians at my table.

    We need to practice more politeness, listening, and less talking! 🙂

  18. Funny you should mention this because I was just thinking about going the other way. We have a VERY talkative 6.5 y.o. We just finished reading Little House and I pondered over Caroline Ingalls telling Laura that little girls shouldn’t talk at table unless they are spoken to. One thing we do to encourage conversation with our son, not just hime telling stories, is to ask “What do you think about” kind of questions. “What do you think questions” invite discussion rather than tell me the answer questions. And our what do you thinks are normally about bigger issues. Inviting critical thinking and almost debate with the others at the table. Normally we try to do situations that are age appropriate but I would think with your older teens perhaps a chance to discuss current events. I’m not afraid to talk about hard current events around younger kids either- alot of grown up issues relate back to little kid issues too. Bullying is buyllying- wether its on the playground or Qadhafi. We also listen to alot of NPR, so @ will hear us talking about what we have been listening too. Maybe assign your kids to listen to NPR:)

  19. MamaFly says:

    We have four children, ages 3 to 10, and began a few years ago doing “the best part of our day” at dinner time. We all go around and tell the best part of our day. Sometimes we ask questions, or tell them they have to focus on the best part of school, etc. It works fairly well and does generate some table conversation, but like you I wonder if we do enough to make meal time fun and encourage communication. At these ages, a big part of the focus is manners!


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