by Frances Lynch

Social scientist Brene Brown defines connection in her book Atlas of the Heart as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued.” Children and teenagers can struggle with connection. The family dinner table is the perfect place to nourish this energy.

The absence of electronic devices is necessary for connecting at the dinner table. Teens and kids don’t need to look at phones or tablets or watch television during family dinners. Try playing soft music in the background if it seems too quiet. Let family dinners be a time to talk, slow down and connect.

Younger children especially can benefit from topic suggestions. The non-profit Family Dinner Project has the following ideas for conversation starters with young diners:

  • If you could have superpowers, which ones would you choose and how would you use them to help people?
  • Name three things that are fun for you.
  • If you could wake up tomorrow and be able to do one thing you can’t do now, what would it be?

The key to connection in family dinners lies in the quality of the discussion. A highly intellectual conversation is not required. The general idea is to get the family to talk and listen to each other. Even mundane conversation is good because research has shown that dinnertime conversation can boost vocabulary for younger kids. Older children’s brains can also benefit. One study suggests that teens are twice as likely to get good grades in school if they have family meals five to seven times per week.

Of course, families miss out on these benefits if they ignore each other or have conflicts at the dinner table. Sharing a pasta dish won’t magically transform a problematic relationship. But regular family dinners may evolve to be a time of the day when family members share a positive experience. Food is nourishing, but stories, jokes and small moments can be fulfilling, too. Small connections at the dinner table can create stronger family connections away from the table, and a way of relating that can last a lifetime.