by Karen O’Connor
A wise man’s heart guides his mouth,
and his lips promote instruction.
Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
—Proverbs 16: 23, 24
“There’s nothing like a good conversation around the dinner table.” I remember these words of my father as he pushed back his chair following a nourishing meal and some fine family talk. He repeated this sentence often from the time I was a little girl to the days when I was an adult with my own children sitting around that same table.
He loved to share his opinions and ideas—even the heated ones—as well as listen to our points of view. We covered everything from religion to politics, from education to entertainment. Communication was always lively when my dad was present.
My husband and I have carried on that tradition with our children and grandchildren. There is rarely a quiet moment when they sit at our table for a family meal, a birthday celebration, or a holiday feast. We also love to play board games after coffee and dessert, an activity that brings additional opportunities to share. If you’d like to stimulate more communication in your family, consider some of the following ideas.
My daughter Julie and her children are word worms. They love books, films, and theater, and they often started their home schooling days with passages from the Bible and comments on what they learned. Then they’d open whatever book they’d chosen for the week and take turns reading a couple of chapters. When the kids were very young, Julie read to them and followed the reading with a discussion about the characters and storyline.
To encourage a love of poetry, she created a tea party, including home baked cookies or scones with a pot of tea. While sipping and nibbling they’d each read their favorite poem and talk about it. These reading adventures led to investigating the classics, including Shakespeare. Eventually the older children enrolled in a Shakespeare summer camp where they performed scenes from some of the Bard’s famous plays. Reading stories from the Victorian era opened up an interest in vintage dancing. Two of the children took lessons and put together appropriate costumes for the era. Imagine the conversations that sprang from such memorable experiences.
Years ago I learned from a friend the value of saying “Thank you” on a daily basis—to God and to others––by writing down what I was grateful for and putting the slips of paper into a basket on the dining room table. What a great conversation starter that was. Each family member wrote something that occurred that day for which to be thankful and shared it aloud with the family before popping it into the basket. Younger children said their blessing out loud and a parent or older sibling jotted it down. The minister of our church at the time started the same practice with his wife and four daughters. “It was a great way to get the teens talking,” Mark shared, “and to focus on the positive things in their lives.”
A family I met years ago initiated a practice that expanded their communication in many directions. Carla and Tom talked to their kids about the annual family vacation. Tom came up with two or three choices based on the number of days available and the amount of money they had to spend. Carla laid out the options, such as swimming, sightseeing, mode of travel, and so on. Each person offered his or her opinion and when the decision was made, everyone volunteered for a task to put the plan in place. This involved Internet searching to make reservations for a campsite or motel, tickets for excursions, and places of interest to visit. Carla said the whole family got involved and discussion and anticipation continued for weeks around the dinner table. “This teamwork brought us closer as a family. We also learned a lot about one another.”
Christian radio talk show host Rich Buehler stated that whenever he had to run an errand to the hardware store or the market, he’d take one of his seven kids along. He was always amazed at how much conversation opened up during even a short ride. Some children will talk more easily when they have a parent’s undivided attention and it will carry over into family conversation as well.
I found that when I take a child or grandchild out for a meal or an ice cream treat, we feel more intimacy than when the whole gang is together. I remember my grandson Jacob asking me to take him out for breakfast during one of my visits. “Where would you like to go?” I asked. “Mimi’s Cafe,” he said, “and I want to sit in the same booth you sat in with Johannah.” I was surprised that he’d kept track of the place where I’d taken his sister. It showed me that he valued one-on-one time, especially important since he came from a family of five children.
I bought my young grandson Miles a chef’s apron and matching spatula for Christmas one year. He’d been helping me bake cookies for some time. His sister and I often made popcorn together or frosted a cake for a special occasion. I found that when we shared a task, conversation would come about naturally. We tasted the treats together as well, and that gave us more to talk about. With older children it’s fun to take a walk together, watch them perform tricks on the trampoline, or take them shopping for a special gift—all of which you can talk about during and after the event.
My 17-year-old granddaughter Shevawn needed some new makeup. I picked up on that during a conversation we had one morning as I drove her to school. A few days later I suggested that her grandfather and I give her the makeup for her upcoming birthday. “Really? Thank you so much.” She volunteered that the brand was available online for a special price. So right then I offered to place the order. We got out her laptop and within minutes the order was activated. She was thrilled when the package arrived a few days later. I felt a sweet connection with her because we made this happen together. And it opened a conversation about appearance and clothing and what it’s like to be in high school today.
Many parents and grandparents are busy with work, hobbies, running a home, keeping up with bills, and health issues. There is always something to do—and too often not enough time in which to do it. Communication suffers. We pass each other with a nod or a glance or send a short text message and then wonder why we feel disconnected from those we love. If that is happening for you, it might be time to return to the family table and make it a starting place for shared conversation, laughter, updates, questions and answers, viewpoints and comments, a story or poem, a written blessing, a Bible verse, or a family decision.
The Smiths chose Sunday evenings as their sit-down-together mealtime. They continued this tradition until the kids left home. It was the one night a week when everyone could reconnect and debrief. “It kept us close through the ups and downs of life, especially during the teen years,” said Lynn. “I highly recommend it.”
As you take steps to improve the communication in your home, keep in mind the essentials––whether you’re enjoying a meal together, driving to the mall, curled up with a good book, or watching a movie together.
Make eye contact when you can. Of course you can’t drive and look the other person in the eye, but when you can, do so. And when you can’t, assure him or her of your attention with a pat on the arm, a warm glance, and an encouraging comment. After a shared movie or TV show, you can sit around and talk about what you saw and what it meant.
Listen until the other person is through talking. We all have a tendency to jump in and finish a sentence for a little child or a slow speaker. It’s important, though, to let that person complete his or her communication before commenting.
Think before responding so you can take time to process what the other person said. It’s easy to shut down communication by jumping in too quickly with a remark that threatens the other.
Be available mentally and emotionally so the person talking feels loved, cared for, and respected. This is especially important with young children who may find it difficult to say what they really mean.
Consider others’ viewpoints— especially if they differ from yours. We’re all entitled to express our point of view at any given time. Being willing to listen and learn is one of the best gifts we can give to another person.
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer and writing mentor from Watsonville, California.
Take the Communication Challenge!
Part 1: This month, try one of the author’s ideas with your family:
Part 2: Make a daily effort to keep the essentials in mind as you communicate with your family:
• Make eye contact when you can.
• Listen carefully.
• Think before responding.
• Be available mentally and emotionally.
• Consider others’ viewpoints.
As you take on this challenge, make a special effort to notice the difference these ideas make in your family’s attitude. See how the activities cause you to grow closer to one another.