When kids are little, we wish and wish for a break. We are everything to them — they hang on our every word and tell us every detail about their own day, no matter how mundane those details may be. We yearn for a time when things will be quieter, when they’ll stop grabbing at us, needing us for every little thing. And then they grow up to become teenagers.
Teenagers do what teenagers are supposed to do — they begin to separate from their parents. Their peers become the larger, more influential force in their lives, and their faces become evermore buried in their phones, which are now central to their social lives. Suddenly, pulling even one detail of their day can seem like an uphill battle. But a lot of times, that’s because of the way we go about it.
They don’t offer anything up, so we start grilling them, mining for information. How was school today? (Fine.) What did you learn? (Nothing.) Do you have any homework? (Nope.) When that doesn’t work, we try to get them to share their “highs and lows” from the day — or “mad/sad/glad” or “rose, thorn, and bud” or whatever other variation you call it. This might work when they’re younger, but a teenager will see it for the ploy it is to force them to talk about their day. Your questions are boring; their TikTok feed is not.
However, dinnertime can be a great opportunity to tuck the screens away and simply engage with each other — without pumping them for information. If they’re not in the mood to chat, tell them about something interesting from your day — a funny thing that happened at work or a weird story you saw on the news. Ask them for their input about what you should plant in the garden this year, or share a funny or heartwarming story you were thinking about recently from your own childhood. As Meghan Leahy writes for the Washington Post:
I find that having these conversations is also a beautiful way to tell family stories. Although our children have everything available to them on their phones, they still need to understand their ancestry, family stories and your own childhoods. Feeling grounded in a space and time, especially during the pandemic, is important to tweens and teens, and through the eye rolls and shrugs, they are listening. And, as [psychologist Dr. John] Duffy says: “When parents engage their kids organically, kids are often drawn into conversation (sometimes despite themselves). They feel competent and respected as a result, and more likely to stick around at the dinner table for a while the next night.”
If the urge to grill them is too strong to overcome, switch up what you’re asking to engage them in topics they actually want to talk about. Ask if they’ve made any progress in their new favourite video game, or what funny YouTube videos or TikToks you should watch (this is one time I’d break the “no phones at the dinner table” rule — if it creates moments of bonding and laughter, it’s worth passing the phone around).
Ditch the corny lists of “family conversation starters.” Instead, talk — and ask their opinion — about whatever pop culture, current events, activities, or sports they’re interested in. Brainstorm what you should do on an upcoming family vacation (or talk about where you’d travel if you could travel). Think of these conversations less as information-gathering expeditions, and engage with them more in the way you’d chat over a meal with a friend.