Connecting with young children during mealtimes is critical for healthy social and emotional development. The act of sitting together around a dinner table, sharing a meal and discussing your day is a comforting ritual to introduce to your children from a young age. This time allows you to check in with your partner and children for an uninterrupted bonding time. If you start this ritual early, your children will come to expect it and respect it. And they will likely make it a priority as they get older. Try to keep it sacred even when your children are very young. Set an example by keeping your smartphone in another room, not taking phone calls during dinner, sitting together at the table with the TV turned off, and making it a point to have conversation. It can be challenging to get children to talk about their day and share details with you if you do not ask pointed questions. During this mealtime, you can start some rituals of specific conversations that you have together. Here are some ideas for family conversation starters with young children.
This is the simplest thing and it is usually very positive and can lead to additional family conversation starters. And maybe even help you to learn something about your child! This question is especially important if your child is school-age or goes to childcare and you are not with them all day. Asking this simple question can really give you a window into your child’s day. Be sure to share the best part of your day. And set an example by explaining why it was the best part of your day and how it made you feel. Talking about feelings is an important skill for young children. This question can help bring up feelings and emotions as you discuss your child’s answer.
The first few times you ask this question, your child may not have an answer. But if you continue to ask it every evening, they will remember and start to purposefully do an act of kindness for someone just so they have something to report during dinner time. Set an example to talking about something very simple that you did. “Today I allowed another driver to pull out in front of me.” “Today I texted a friend to say hello.” Remind your child that no act of kindness is too small. Offer some suggestions of things they can do tomorrow. As ask a child to play, play with a younger sibling, or smile at a new child in the classroom. This teaches children to think beyond themselves, consider the feelings of others and build empathy.
Try to get them to talk about something that simply makes them feel happy or secure such as their stuffed animal, favorite toy, sibling, mommy or daddy or a best friend. Talk about what it means to be grateful and why it is important. Talk about what you are grateful for (often tell your children that you are grateful for them).
This can be at school, or at home and this can allow you to plan for the next day together and allow your child to think about time and how it is relative to their life. Ask follow-up family conversation starters such as “Why are you looking forward to that?” and “What do we need to do to prepare for our picnic tomorrow?” Include your child in the planning.
Just as it is important to talk about happy emotions, it is equally important to give your children opportunities to discuss and process more difficult emotions. This may give your child an opportunity to share something that happened at school that was upsetting or scary for them. Help your child discuss why they feel the way they do. And validate their feelings. (“If my friend played with someone else instead of me on the playground, I would feel sad too”).
Remind your child that they can always discuss anything with their family. Make mealtimes a time of connection, trust, no judgement and safety with these family conversation starters. This tradition will provide a foundation into their teen years when that connection is more important than anything!
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