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The art of dinner conversation is lost on the young

My sister-in-law aptly describes mealtimes with her in-laws (that would be my siblings and me). She says there is no actual conversation. It's more like someone throws out a topic, like throwing a bone to wild dogs, and we all jump on it.

At once every individual is sharing his or her view on the topic, speaking louder and louder until we reach a deafening crescendo. At that point, whoever holds out the longest and the loudest (and hasn't stormed from the table in anger) considers his or her analysis ultimately correct. That person claims victory in the dog fight, dragging the bone back to his plate as a prize.

In essence, the art of conversation is lost on us. We're passionate, and we all desire to be right more than we desire the necessities of life. Unfortunately, we don't respect the give and take required for true discussion.

In light of that, my husband and I are endeavoring to teach our children how to converse at the dinner table. We want them to understand that sharing a meal together is more than making loud meaningless noises in a brother's ear or measuring how much milk a child can consume before it overflows out of his nose.

Our first strategy was to model polite and interesting conversation. Not a good strategy. We found ourselves yelling over loud chirps, bleeps and requests for milk at three-second intervals. Clearly, the little savages were not going to let us model good conversation. They wanted in on the action.

Our next strategy was to teach the art of conversation through using open ended questions. We would ask each child a question in hopes that the answer would spur further dialogue. "Tell us something you did today that made you happy" my husband would prod. "I gassed. Heh, heh, heh" replied our four-year-old. For a child who has never watched Beavis and Butthead he does an excellent impersonation. Needless to say, teaching table speak was tough.

Undaunted, we continued to guide dinner time debate. Things were on the upswing until our six-year-old became bored with the chatter and put several peas up his nose. Although our exchange of ideas on the logic behind this act was quite brisk, it could barely be heard over my son's snorting and blowing in efforts to dislodge the peas and avoid extraction in the emergency room.

Then it dawned on us: If you can't fight 'em, join 'em! We spilled our milk, yelled everything we said, and asked the kids to pass the salt over and over again. We put our elbows on the table, talked with our mouths full, and fought over which one of us would say the blessing. Our children's response? They told us we were gross, to stop fighting, and that they were tired of passing the salt.

All in all, it didn't change much, but we had a lot of fun.

Maybe we're not quite ready for full-fledged dinner conversation. Our youngest child is only two and can scarcely say the word "conversation," much less engage in it. Our four-year-old can say it while he is sprawled in his chair trying to pick grapes off the floor with his toes, but has no idea what it means. Our six-year-old may still have a pea lodged in his nose.

The-eight-year old gives us a glimmer of hope, however, when he sits down and politely asks "How was your day?" just before thumping his brother on the head.

Web posted on Thursday, January 29, 2004

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