Just about every parent has been there: The stew's on the dinner table, the family sits down, ready to reconnect after a busy day - and conversation stalls.
"How was school today?"
"OK, I guess."
"Did you give your science report?"
TV families like the Petries, the Cleavers, and the Bradys may have led us to believe dinnertime is a participatory affair, but they didn't always give the full picture.
There are nights when little Johnny crumbles into tears at the sight of peas on his pasta, ninth-grader Tina is staring out the window, and Jake is busy feeding his baked potato to the dog. Any one of these incidents can deflate hopes for a meaningful exchange during the only window many families have to connect with one another.
How can parents get beyond teaching manners and managing moods to talk with their children - not at them - during dinner?
Some families list conversation topics on a bulletin board, while others take turns talking about their favorite film or book characters. Margaret Hannah, a workshop leader for Warmlines, a parent-resource center in West Newton, Mass., designates one family member each day to get the royal treatment: first to be served, first to talk, and his or her pick of dessert.
These are all good ideas. But the conversation ball won't even begin to roll unless parents set the right tone, say two of America's leading experts on parent-child talk.
While their approaches differ slightly, family counselors Ron Taffel and Adele Faber advise parents to create an open and respectful environment. "Don't bombard kids with questions. Imagine how that would make you feel. We all need time to process our days," says Ms. Faber, mother, lecturer, and co-author of the hugely popular parent guides "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk," and the more recent "How to Talk So Kids Can Learn."
Instead, she suggests parents try a creative tack to draw children out. With toddlers, for example, float a zany question like "What do you think would happen if people had eyes on the back of their heads?" Or ask the whole family for solutions relating to a current issue: "What should be done about all the garbage in this world?"
When the conversation isn't absorbing, that's when Johnny kicks Tina under the table, she says.
Faber points out that impersonal questions will often warm children up to talking, and then some deeper, more personal topics might surface. When they do, she suggests that parents hear what their children have to say, accept their feelings, and hold back the criticism or pithy comments. "Rejoinders shut down conversation," she says, explaining: "A big part of conversation goes on because we are hearing each other, and we are not trying to change each other." This goes for all ages, she adds.
When Faber's three children were at home, she came up with a winning strategy for engaging their interest during dinner: Each night, one child would read aloud from a favorite book while mom prepared dinner. It not only encouraged a love of literature and made cooking pleasurable for her, but it also provided a natural topic of conversation when it came time to move into the dining room. Teenagers especially "love thoughtful conversation," she says.
For families today who are always on the go, dinner hour should provide a "little island of peace." She acknowledges that this isn't always easy: "We're on 'gotta time' ... gotta do this, gotta do that ... while our kids are on 'oh-wow time.' "
Both Faber and Dr. Taffel tell parents not to fret if communication doesn't flow easily during dinner. In fact, Taffel says, it's far from an ideal time to connect with children. "It's scheduled conversation. Kids don't talk on schedule. Most real conversation happens when you're in a parallel position, not looking at each other," says the author of the best-selling "Parenting by Heart" and parenting columnist for McCall's magazine.
To even begin to make the most of the dinner hour, Taffel says, be sure to shut out some basic distractions: TV and telephones.
But, he adds, the key lies in keeping antennae up for those times when children feel freer to talk. Don't, for example, overlook the moments before and after dinner. He mentions the time his daughter, when she was seven years old, waited until they were doing dishes to tell him that a classmate was picking on her.
One of the biggest problems is that dinner revolves around food, Taffel points out. If you can stand it, he suggests, designate one dinner each week "comment-free." Off-limits are comments about anything to do with food - how much kids are eating, how slow or fast they're eating, or whether they're using proper etiquette.
What kids do want to hear, says Taffel, is what's going on in their parents' lives as well as their parents' own difficulties and feelings. "They don't want to have robots as parents," he says. But keep it brief. "These are sound-bite kids."
Taffel suggests that parents sit next to children instead of across from them, and talk between themselves. "It jogs children's memories about their own days," he says. Most of all, refrain from pouncing on children when they chime in.
The surest way to turn children off is to respond by playing the teacher instead of just reacting to what they're saying, he says. "We're dealing with fast-forward, sophisticated kids who need parents to be real people with them."