You've heard it before: families that sit down to dinner together enjoy higher academic outcomes for their kids, higher self-esteem, and more persistence through challenges. Kids whose families eat dinner together regularly are less likely to engage in substance abuse, to experience depression or to be overweight. Sitting down with your children helps you to make real connections with them today, connections that will help them in the future.
You can use some of the same techniques we use in Montessori classrooms to make your dinners together closer. Think about the ways in which you children can help to prepare the table, from setting the places for each member of the family to helping to make the meal. No matter the age, your children have something to bring to the table.
Toddlers can help to carry placemats, one by one, to the table, and follow up with a plate for each family member, a cup and utensils. In the kitchen, toddlers can help to tear salad, to chop berries, to roll dough for bread, to toss salad and more. Look for the steps in your cooking process that require less fine motor control, and don't worry as much about whether it's beautiful if you can engage your toddler instead.
Early Childhood children can prep vegetables and cook simple meals. They can assemble salads and desserts, mix dressings or help to prepare the main dish. They can manage setting the table independently and may enjoy arranging flowers or writing place-cards for family members.
Older Elementary children and teens can take responsibility for an entire meal and, with support, can plan, prepare and cook the meal. More experienced cooks can research new recipes to try.
At the table, start with children's basic needs. Remember that small children may feel less comfortable dangling off the chairs an adult-sized table. And while you might not be able to trade out your family dinner table for one that's twenty-inches-tall, you can set a small stool under each of your small children's chairs so at least their feet can touch the "floor." You can provide utensils that are developmentally appropriate for children, with larger handles for smaller hands or wider spoons for scooping. Don't presume that a plastic fork is necessarily child-friendly, though. Test utensils that have been designed for kids to make sure they're actually usable by kids. Sometimes children's cutlery prioritizes bright colors over functionality. Offer children real glassware... it reminds them that you trust them to take care of the table as well as their older siblings do.
Engage in open-ended conversation and model the kind of grace and courtesy you hope your children will demonstrate. Specifically, remember that your children are there at the table with you! You wouldn't monopolize the conversation at a dinner party; don't do it at your own table, either. Ask your children open ended questions that engage their conversation. "How was school today?" might elicit a simple, "Fine," while, "Tell me something that happened today I might not otherwise know," can open your child to offer details. Use the table as a time to share family stories, and model listening and waiting your turn to talk. Ask follow up questions. Demonstrate real interest. While multiple children may compete for "center stage" at first, the more regularly you eat together as a family and more consistently you model peaceful norms of listening to one person speak at a time and offering follow-up questions in a natural way, the sooner children will learn these skills as well. Your goal is authentic conversation between people who are genuinely interested in each other's company. Don't worry about doing it right: just pay attention, be kind and interested, and listen... just like you would if you were having dinner with anyone else.
None of these norms are established overnight. In the classroom, we know that it takes four to six weeks for new routines to "set." Give yourself the time as a family to learn how to interact with each other differently at dinner time. You'll reap the rewards in time, and that's quite a sweet dessert.