Table Talk

By Casey Seidenberg

It sounds terrible, but sometimes I am too tired at dinnertime to talk to my kids. It’s not that I don’t want to have a stimulating conversation with them; I want nothing more. I live for those thought-provoking dialogues that leave me feeling connected and as if I have passed on nuggets of lasting wisdom to my children. Yet, there are evenings when my mind just can’t get past the “How was your day?” or “What were your roses and thorns?” questions.

I also have fantasies that my 3-year-old will learn some basic skills while sitting at the table with her 11- and 10-year-old siblings, such as how to wait her turn to speak, how to listen to others and possibly some new vocabulary.

On top of all of this, because of sports and school commitments, the family dinner is often late and enormously hurried, if it happens at all. It makes my heart hurt thinking that the days of sitting around a table with my children are numbered. And because our best moments as a family often happen at dinnertime, I have been putting some thought into ours.

Laurie David, environmental activist and author of “ The Family Dinner ,” has some fantastic suggestions for how to dial up the dinner discourse and the mood at the table.

Begin by ensuring everyone is on time, the TV is off, the homework is shelved and the devices are far away. She says, “Remind your group that it’s everybody’s responsibility to be a good dinner guest.” I agree that everyone in my family should be respectful and participatory during dinner: no teenage sulking, no judgments or teasing and no opting out.

David suggests countless games to play and topics to discuss. We have been meandering our way through her ideas while creating our own. Here are our picks:

Getting-to-know-you games:

• Pet peeves and idiosyncrasies

• What I know about you

• I remember when . . .

• Would you rather . . .

Conversation-Starter Questions:

• Name some things you take for granted.

• What is the grossest thing you have ever eaten?

• What are you more courageous about today than you were two years ago?

• What will be obsolete in the future?

Word Games:

• Category: One person chooses a category, such as vegetables or animals. Then go around the table until one person is stumped. That person is out and the others continue until no one is left.

• SAT words you should know (I need to rename this one so it doesn’t sound like a school obligation. Ideas welcome.)

For young children:

My tweens have just as much fun with these as their little sister.

• The favorite game: One person asks, “What is your favorite ice cream?” or “What is your favorite memory?” for example. There are no wrong answers, and everyone gets to share.

• What fruit, animal, flower or tree am I?

• Alphabet: The first person names a word that begins with A. The next person repeats that word then names something that begins with B.

• Telephone

Books to get the conversation going:

• “The Mega Book of Useless Information”

• “The New Books of Lists”

• “The Big Book of Words You Should Know”

• “The Road to Success Is Paved With Failure”

Other Ideas:

• Newspaper clippings

• New Yorker magazine cartoons

• Moral conversations like “You get a good look at a woman with a young child stealing baby food from a grocery store. The police ask you for a description. Do you provide it?”

• Poetry cafe: One person brings a poem and reads it. That person talks about why he or she chose that poem and then we discuss whatever comes to mind. We started with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” and the conversations spanned a week and covered everything from modern slavery to the root of confidence.

• College commencement addresses. “The Family Dinner” offers a handful of inspiring commencement address excerpts. Right as I was starting this dinnertime campaign, a close friend sent me George Saunders’s 2013 address to Syracuse graduates. I believe the discussion we had about kindness will stay with our family forever.

• Huffington Post’s Family Dinner Downloads. Our favorites have been “Why Is It Important to Celebrate Music,” “Would a Bacon Shortage Affect Our Family” and “Who Decides What Kids Should Read?”

My boys are now regularly in charge of directing the dinner conversation, and it is a hoot to see what they bring to the table. We’ve tackled everything from a poem about warts and why summer reading lists are a bad idea, to gay marriage and immigration. This is so much more fun and rewarding than “My day was fine, Mom.”

Parenting books tell me to develop a tight bond with my children now so it will withstand the teen years and beyond. So that is exactly what I am trying to do. If it takes some silly games and artificial dinnertime activities, I am okay with it.

First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, July 31, 2014.