Until recently, our family rarely ate dinner together. Our kids are 9 and 14, and as they’ve gotten older it’s gotten harder and harder to coordinate everyone’s schedules. But we’ve been trying to change that. And over the past few months, my husband, kids and I have managed to carve out time for family dinner a bunch of times.
When it’s happened, I’ve loved it. We’ve shared meals and had great conversations. We’ve laughed and connected in new ways.
The whole family enjoyed our dinners—or so I thought.
Then one day, when I called everyone to come eat, my 9-year-old daughter showed up with headphones on. She sat down at the table, set up her iPad and starting watching a video.
“Excuse me?” I said, a little shocked. “We don’t watch videos at the table while we’re all eating together. The point here is that we talk and listen to each other.”
“Yeah, well, I get bored.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you guys talk too fast and I don’t know what you’re saying. So I’m just going to watch Minecraft videos. You guys can talk.” Then she buried her nose back in her iPad.
I felt awful. I had no idea she felt this way. But it made instant sense.
Thinking back, I realized it was my husband, my son and I doing most of the talking at dinner. My daughter may have smiled and added a word here and there, but she didn’t really participate.
My daughter was diagnosed with a few years ago. People often think this means it’s just hard for her to read. But when she got evaluated, we learned that her trouble with reading is actually caused by her challenges with language processing.
She struggles to find the right word when she speaks, and it takes her longer to process the meaning of words when others are talking. This makes it hard for her to keep up with fast-moving conversations. Especially when they bounce from topic to topic.
I’ve probably thought hundreds of times about how her processing issues affect her academically. But until she brought her headphones to the table, it didn’t register with me that they might also affect family interactions.
So I went back to the drawing board. I came up with ideas to help make sure she was included in conversation at family meals going forward.
At one dinner, for instance, I had us go around the table and each share a memory from a family vacation. (This replaced the chaotic, free-for-all conversations we’d been having previously.)
We made sure my daughter went last so she’d feel comfortable sharing. We talked about roller coasters, lost luggage, sunburns and Ping-Pong. Because there was less back and forth, it was easier for her to follow and interact.
When her turn came, she talked about the time she saw a beautiful sunset over the ocean. She described all the colors—pink, orange, blue, white, gold, red—and the shapes of the clouds. She remembered how the air felt, that there were seagulls and the sounds the waves made. She painted a picture before our very eyes.
In that moment, my daughter reminded me of something important. I realized that while the rest of us are busy talking, she’s often thinking about the beauty and wonder of the world around us.
Because of her, we all were able to slow down and see the world through her eyes. And our family meals are now a chance for us to really connect with each other.
If someone in your family processes information differently, conversation can be a challenge. Here are some ideas that have worked well for my family:
- Have at least one structured conversation, or even a game. Give each family member a turn and a chance to prepare for her turn. For example, you can take turns talking about the best part of your day. Or you can play a guessing game like 20 questions.
- Develop a signal or gesture that can be used when conversation is going too fast. Our family uses a peace sign with two fingers. It can be used by any family member at any time. We all make sure to use it once in a while so my daughter doesn’t feel bad when she needs to use it to slow things down.
- Make an effort to speak more slowly. This doesn’t mean you have to speak loudly! Just slowly, taking a pause between sentences.
- When you start feeling impatient (as I often do), remind yourself that it’s a lot more frustrating for your child than it is for you. This helps me have empathy and calms my frustration.
- Check for understanding frequently. This is something most teachers do intuitively, but I’ve had to learn to do it as a parent. If someone uses sarcasm, for instance, take a moment to explain it, just in case the joke was missed.
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About the author
Jenifer Kasten is a special education consultant and the parent of two children with learning and thinking differences.