Yes, You Can Have Dinner Conversation with a Toddler. Here’s How.

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Maa Hoo/Stocksy)

With all the press around the importance of dining as a family, we’ve been making an effort to sit down most nights and eat together. But honestly, it’s pretty thankless. By the time dinner’s ready, my girls (almost 3 and 5) have been whining and asking for snacks for at least a half-hour, and inevitably about a minute after we sit down, I’m back up again fetching some crucial item (a grown-up fork instead of a baby one, bubbles water instead of regular, a pat of butter or the right kind of salt). We’re not having one of those made-for-TV moments and we’re not exactly connecting with each other. Occasionally I wonder if I’m doing it wrong — or if there’s a better way.

So I spoke Julie King, who along with Joanna Farber wrote How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen. The book addresses all sorts of frustration points parents have with their little ones — and dinnertime is among them. Here’s what I learned.

1. Manage your expectations.

Remember that you’re hanging out with a tired, hungry little kid with a short attention span and a body that likes to move. If you think they’re going to sit still for an hour, King says, “the only answer is duct tape.” (For the record: She’s joking!) Aim for 15 good minutes and don’t sit them down until the food is on the table. At restaurants, consider taking the kids outside after you order your food so you don’t spend their whole attention span waiting for the food to arrive.

(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

2. Get on their level.

I’ll admit that when my in-laws start talking about the new fescue at the golf club, my eyes glaze over. Similarly, can I expect my toddler to be truly interested in my day at work or figuring out travel plans? “You have to join your kid in their world,” says King. Be ready to be goofy, to ask them about their favorite color or what they did at the playground, and to table the grown-up conversation for after bedtime.

3. Ask specific questions.

When I ask how my daughter’s day was, she’ll say, good! What’d she do? Nothing. King reminded me that, to little ones, a day is a super-long time and it’s almost impossible to remember what happened and put it in a cohesive narrative. Instead, ask them about specific events (did you go to the playground? Do artwork?) and follow up with more questions.

4. Try a game.

“Make things playful!” says King. One game she likes: a truth and a lie (or when they’re older, two truths and a lie), during which your child tells you two things — one made-up, one not — and you have to guess which is which. While that’s fairly sophisticated for a toddler, a bonus is that you may find out things that actually happened during the school day that you otherwise might not have known about. (We tried this one: Can you guess whether or not my daughter really saw a rainbow bunny at school?)

5. Give them an out.

Especially for dinners at a restaurant or with other grown-ups, find a way for your child to tell you they’re done — without screaming or throwing food. Remind them of expectations ahead of time and what they should say when they’re done, whether it’s “May I please be excused?” (older kids) or a goofy keyword for younger ones (“rainbow bunny!”). And if they use the out, respect it!

What do you think? Any games or tricks that have worked for you with younger kids?