My husband and I have learned a little secret. The best opportunity to really learn what our young children think and who they are becoming is to have a nightly dinner.
(Sound familiar? Generations before us knew this well, of course.)
But in 2015, we have found that the best way at dinner to learn anything about our kids is to ask specific, pressing questions that capture their attention.
A regular dinner is important to us. My little family of four has spent the past two years in transition. First, we sold the only house my kids, now ages 10 and 8, had known. Then, we bought another, but the sale didn’t work out. So we moved into a rental, complete with flea-infested carpets. A few months ago, we found our forever home and set up shop, mainly according to my tastes — in the interest of time, of course.
But no matter where we were, dinner hour remained sacred, and we invited new neighbors and old friends to share in the chaos, which gave me some pretty good ideas for questions to ask the kids. Here are some of our favorites.
“If it was up to you, how would you design the house?”
Leave this question open-ended, so young minds can feel free to roam and create. Turns out, my daughter would cover the walls of the dining and living rooms with unicorns. My son, on the other hand, votes to keep all rooms open — the better to play a quick game of tackle or spread out his Legos. My husband, surveying my handiwork, wisely didn’t answer, but then came up with another goodie…
“If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be?”
My daughter wanted dinner with her family unit of four, pretty much like we do every night, only with our two rather obese and always hungry cats also at the table. My son chose John Smith, the founder of Jamestown, a main figure in his social studies class in his Northern Virginia school. He also chose Pocahontas — she was pretty, he said.
My husband chose the typically intriguing historical figures — Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. When I noted his selection was all male, he was surprised. Far from a chauvinist, he simply was more interested in male company, given a blank dining slate.
Then my son came up with an answer that made us all pause. “All my grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents …”
“You mean all of your ancestors, sweetie?”
“Yeah! Which is basically like all the people in the world!”
So go ahead. Ask some probing questions. You’ll be surprised, and perhaps humbled, by what you learn.
Other variations of that question above, by the way, can also yield fascinating responses:
“Which teacher would you like to invite to dinner?” (Be careful. You might be obliged.)
“Which of your friends’ parents are most interesting to you, and why?”
“Which person who you’ve studied in school would you invite to dinner?”
“Who would you not want at dinner, and why?”
“Think of all the people who go to our church. Who do you want to get to know better?”
“Who do you know who has the most fascinating job?” (Get them to explain why it’s so interesting.)
“If you were in charge of making dinner for people you wanted to have over, what would be on your menu?” (And then prepare to teach that menu item!)