I was on the verge of writing about family word games when it occurred to me that there’s a more basic topic: conversation.
In today’s typical family (if there is such a thing), every hour of the day is scheduled. When we’re not running from activity to activity, we’re likely to be engaged with our electronic companions: computers, phones, televisions, games, and other devices. In school, our children are focused on skills and passing tests. After school, it’s more studying and sports.
What often gets left out of the picture is conversation. In less-scheduled decades, families sat down together at mealtimes and talked. Conversation often stretched into the evening, with families gathering on the porch or in the parlor. But even meal-time togetherness is uncertain today.
A Gallup Poll found that “slightly more than a quarter (28%) of adults with children under the age of 18 report that their families eat dinner together at home seven nights a week — down from 37% in 1997. Almost half (47%) of parents say their families eat together between four and six times a week. Another quarter (24%) say they eat together three or fewer nights a week.”
The September 2010 report of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, The Importance of Family Dinners VI, reports that “60 percent of teens report having dinner with their families at least five times a week.” The number has ranged between 51% and 61% for the 16 years that CASA has conducted the research.
Among those figures are a lot of children and adults eating meals alone, in front of the TV, or on the fly.
Supportive family conversations can encourage attention to words, expand vocabulary and provide a safe setting for children to practice using language to express their points of view.
The discussion that takes place in most classrooms is very different from the discussion in a family setting. Face-to-face family conversation can scaffold a child’s critical thinking, language development, cooperation, and creativity in a way that is hard to accomplish in a group of peers. As children learn to answer and ask increasingly complex questions, they gain valuable social skills that have life-long benefits. Research indicates that eating together has other benefits as well, from menu and portion management to improved grades, reduced tension, and a lower incidence of substance abuse.
It seems like one of the most important things a family can do is to create a context for interaction and conversation. The family meal is one place conversation can happen, but it’s certainly not the only one. What about a no-electronics hour before bed? A 30-minute walk before dinner? We’re able to find remarkable amounts of time to dedicate to our gadgets; with a little effort, couldn’t we re-route some of that time every day to simple conversation?
Once you’ve set aside the time, where do you start? The Family Education website offers a terrific list of “100 Questions to Ask Your Kids” excerpted from the book 201 Questions to Ask Your Kids by Pepper Schwartz. The site also offers some ideas about setting the right tone for conversation and how it’s valuable to both adults and kids. Have a look!
If you have concerns about language processing, dyslexia, or starting a conversation with your child, I welcome your questions and comments at Info@Lexercise.com or 1-919-747-4557.
Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.
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