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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

11 Foolproof Ways to Get Kids Talking at the Dinner Table

Go way beyond "fine" with these questions and prompts (and a few sneaky strategies) that will turn your dinner table into a lively place for family conversation, every time.

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“What made you sad, mad, and glad today?”

There are lots of versions of this question, which prompts kids to share highlights and low-lights of their day. Your family might call it “Roses and Thorns,” “Highs and Lows,” “Bests and Worsts,” or “Two Stars and a Wish” (the wish being something you wish hadn’t happened). However you phrase it, giving kids a little structure helps them jog their memories and organize their thoughts so they have something to say. And, substantive conversations can actually help you all be happier.

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“Now it’s my turn.”

Whatever game you play or prompt you use, make sure you—the adults at the table—are participating too. Not only are you acting as a role model, helping kids learn how to think and talk about their day; you are also introducing more topics that everyone can discuss. Kids really are interested in what’s happening in your life, too! Plus, you are actively showing that family conversation is a two-way street. (Over time, teach your children to avoid these speaking habits).

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“Did anyone do something nice for you today?”

This one gives your kids a chance to recall a happy memory, and helps them develop a practice of gratitude for life’s little (and big!) blessings. Better yet: Start the day by asking your children to do something nice for someone they don’t know. Then, follow up at the dinner table. What did they do? How did they choose that particular action? How did they feel afterwards? This doesn’t need to be an everyday practice. You could rotate through the family members, choosing one person each day to be the designated do-gooder. Or make it a family mission just one day per week, when you know you can all report back that evening and share your results.

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“Did you go outside for recess today? What did you play?”

Just asking “How was school?” or “What did you do today?” can feel like an overwhelming question to a kid. So steer him in the right direction by narrowing down the topic a bit. Focus on lunch, recess, an academic subject you know he enjoys, and so on. And keep things positive; a question like “Did anyone get in trouble today?” may prompt an enthusiastic answer, but it’s basically teaching your child to gossip and tattle. If this kind of topic comes up, make it a teachable moment by asking a follow-up question such as “How do you think Jamie felt when she broke that rule?” or “Why do you think there is a rule about that, anyway?”

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“Here’s something I learned today.”

For best results, kick this one off yourself, and make it a good story! Your kids will love hearing about a lesson you learned, especially if it resulted from a mistake you made. Then they get underlying lessons too: Parents aren’t perfect (because nobody is), your family will support you no matter what, and screw-ups can be opportunities for growth. If you make this a regular part of your dinner-time repertoire, you can occasionally turn the tables and ask kids if they learned something that day. Maybe they’ll tell you they learned long division. Or maybe they’ll share something truly difficult that happened, and you can help them through it.

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“I’m listening.”

Kids will clam up in an instant if they suspect you are not giving them your full attention. They can sniff out judgment just as quickly, so always reserve yours until you have the full story. They also don’t care for interrogation. To prevent all of these conversation-stoppers, be a good and active listener. Don’t fill silences with your own chatter (or additional questions). Just be present and hear what your kiddo has to say—which includes putting your phone down. Only offer advice or problem-solving if your child wants it. And do you know these 9 things all good listeners do?

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“What if … ?”

To prompt a lively conversation, open-ended questions are key. If your child can give a one-word answer (like “yes” or “no,” or the dreaded “fine”), she probably will. So instead of asking, “Did you have gym class today?” try a question like, “When I was a kid, we had to learn to square dance in gym. What if your friends  tried that?” or “What is the best game your PE teacher knows?”

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“Let’s take a break before we eat.”

If you can swing it, an after-school snack and some time to decompress can work wonders for dinner-table discussions (and overall mood). We all need a little down time, kids included. So even if it’s only a few minutes of quiet play, a short break between the demands of the school day and a family meal can help kids reset and feel ready to chat. These back-to-school stress-busters will help, too (year-round!).

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“I heard … “

Make it a point to be in the know about what’s going on at school. Then you’ll be ready to ask leading questions, like “Did your teacher dress up for spirit day?” or “Did the principal tell a good joke during the announcements today?” You can stay in the loop by reading communications from school, checking your child’s daily planner, or developing a relationship with other parents at drop-off or pick-up time.

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“I can’t believe you had octopus sandwiches for lunch.”

Kids can’t resist telling you just how wrong you are! So once in a while, hit them with a real whopper. They’ll be very glad to set you straight, and then you’ll get some actual scoop on what’s going on. Obviously, this works best with younger kids, but even older ones might enjoy feeling superior as they correct you—or getting in on the joke with younger siblings.

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“Let’s play a game.”

Invest in a game that’s designed to promote discussion, and it’ll do much of the work for you, supplying quirky questions and conversation starters that will involve the whole crew. There are lots of options, including the Un-Game, Table Topics, Loaded Questions (Junior edition), and the Family Dinner Box of Questions.

Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is a contributor to’s Advice and Culture sections, where she writes about parenting, relationships, and pets. You can also read her work online at Highlights, Parents, and Verywell, and listen to her daily podcast at Catherine earned her BA in English at the University of Pennsylvania.