The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 13, 2012

Meaningful meals: Family time during dinner takes work for good connections

By Sarah Guinn
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — It’s one thing to have a regular mealtime, but making the most of that time takes effort.     

Making time to sit together as a family and share a meal is important in terms of connecting, said Deanna Street, a family counselor. That time together allows parents and kids to hear about each other’s day and what’s going on with life in general.

This time together as a family is a commitment, which cannot be forced, she said.

“It sets that message and that tone that family is important,” Street said. “Just because you’re together doesn’t mean you’re connecting.”

Amicable atmosphere

As children grow into teenagers, most become moodier and parents are forced to deal with the awkward silence that fills the air between them at the table.

But before considering conversation starters at the dinner table, families need to examine their environment first, she said. Parents set the direction and tone of family time by answering questions such as:

Once families figure out the atmosphere for their time together at the table, parents can then work through how to make that time together meaningful, she said.  

Parents may want to do or say something, but find themselves unsure of themselves or often don’t know how to talk with their teenagers.

“With teenagers, they knew how to connect when they were little and were easier to entertain,” she said.

Street suggests asking open-ended questions, which can make conversation flow much easier. Parents can make mental notes of what their kids are working through, such as studying for upcoming tests.

“Was (the test) harder than you thought?” and “How does it feel to be a senior this year?” are examples of open-ended questions parents can keep in mind for those awkward dinner time moments.

Flexibility favored

But at the same time, Street warns parents not to be too “rigid” when it comes to spending time together as a family.

“Parents who have great goals in mind for their kids, but not seeing the forest for the trees, are sabotaging     what they’re trying to get.”

Structure, with some room for flexibility, is the best way to work through this issue, Street said. While structure brings security, if teenagers don’t feel like sitting at the table that night, don’t force it.

“Kids need to know they are understood,” she said. “It gives them a sense of belonging and importance in family and gives them that opportunity (to connect), even if they act like they don’t care or want to talk about their day with their parents. It’s still given that they’re an important part of the family.”

Families with younger children will probably have an easier time building connections with their kids because they typically don’t resist like older kids do, Street said.

The time kids and families dedicate to other things such as sports, however, may be an issue. Parents need to let kids who have been busy with homework or extracurricular activities all evening to sleep and skip-out on the dinner that night.

“You’re defeating the purpose if you wake them up and force them to eat and be a part of this family event,” Street said. And that only furthers families from their goal of connecting.

One thing families with hectic evenings can do to still make time with each other is to have breakfast as their meal together.

“It doesn’t have to be dinner,” she said. “The whole point of (being together) is to connect.”