Nowadays, we’ve lost track of a lot of traditional practices as society evolves. This isn’t necessarily bad, but one thing that often goes by the wayside is the good, old-fashioned family dinner. Not so long ago we all sat down together at night over meatloaf or fried chicken to share our days. This was one of the situations where we made necessity a virtue, and many of us miss the familiarity of it.
Why does this matter to the child psychologist? For a simple, if not obvious, reason: because the evening meal is a primary venue for young children to practice their language skills. That may not seem like such a big deal, until you realize that, first of all, it gives the child multiple people to talk to. We know from research that children in warm familial environments where one-on-one conversations with parents and others are common tend to do better in school. They also do better later in life.
Second, language is important to almost all aspects of social development. We use language to shape the way we think. The vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and other aspects of language go a long way toward establishing who we are and what we accept. For example, some words once commonly used are avoided today, because most of us no longer accept the attitudes that they reflect. Terms we now think of as racial insults, for example, were once intended simply as descriptors. As recently as 1939, Agatha Christie published a book with the “N-word” in the title. Now careers can be destroyed through allegations of its public use.
But common dinner conversation does more than just teach children what’s acceptable as it shapes their attitudes. Let’s look at a few other ways it contributes to childhood development.
Telling stories and anecdotes at the dinner table helps children in several ways. It helps them understand narration, and how to tell a story it in a meaningful manner. Explanation lets them expand their understanding of the world. These are teaching experiences, even (or perhaps especially) when the child is the one doing the teaching. New topics of conversation also benefit the child in an educational sense, whether the topics involve nutrition or how Dad landed a new advertising account today.
The child also learns about (and practices) conversational aspects as varied as topic selection, problem solving, theory building, and analytical thinking. Over time, this can help her develop more complex conversational skills. It can also help her develop her qualities of self-awareness and self-esteem further, especially if a serious effort is made to include her in the mealtime conversations.
Limitations and Promise
Mealtime conversations may not offer enough stimulation and challenge for older children, or for younger children who have already developed their conversational skills. After all, topics may focus on nutrition, safety issues, and mealtime assistance as the younger, less sophisticated children develop. However, they can still benefit from the family and social interaction.
And speaking of social interaction, this may be the most important benefit of conversation with young children, at mealtime or any time. Children who talk frequently with multiple partners, especially caregivers, tend to have fewer social problems as they mature. They fit in better and get into trouble less. This is a simple way to help your child learn her social roles and expectations, and it’s especially important with children who have developmental difficulties associated with autism and similar disorders.
So even if you don’t have traditional dinner conversations, do talk frequently with your child—not just to her. Urge her to contribute to the conversation, so that she can broaden her mind, develop a better sense of Theory of Mind (the understanding of the thoughts and intentions of others), and establish a deeper understanding of what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what is not, and how to proceed from there.
Check out Dr. Karina Poirier’s social skills therapy clinic.