Dinnertime Is A Free-For-All!

Dear Mamas,
We have a pair of twins, age 4, and an eight-month-old. It’s going pretty well but dinnertime at our house is a nightmare. It’s chaotic and noisy with everyone talking at the same time. I hate it! How can I teach my boys to take turns and listen? The baby picks up on all the excitement and then bangs toys and her spoon on her highchair. I really need some help in gaining control!


Dear Jennifer,
Great question and good for you for addressing it early! Dinnertime is so important and it should be something we all look forward to, not dread!  We come together at the same place with the same people each night, eat a meal and share our time and stories. It’s a fabulous way to show kids that they belong to a tribe.

The ritual not only provides the fuel to keep kids growing, it helps them feel connected to their family, gives them a sense of security and a feeling of being loved and cared for. It also provides consistency and routine which help them develop in multiple ways. All great things that matter so much, so congratulations for making the effort.

Your problem (noise and chaos) is pretty typical given the ages of your brood. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t hit it head on. It’s a great goal to have and you definitely can work to achieve it. What you want to do is set a goal of encouraging polite conversation at the table. This will not only bring you a sense of peace, it will also give your kids the chance to work on developing self-control, one of the most important life skills of all. By learning how to wait for their turn to talk, they build their self-control muscles on a daily basis.

Your four-year-olds can start with something like this:
Find a life-sized (or bigger) picture of an ear and laminate it. Do the same with a picture of a mouth. Then make a new dinnertime rule – tell the boys that from now on you are all going to practice listening at the table. So when one person is talking he will be given the mouth to hold. That shows everyone that it is his turn to talk. The other one will hold the ear which means it is his turn to listen. They will take turns holding each picture and you will make sure they each have a chance to say their piece.

Explain that listening carefully to one another and not interrupting is one of the ways that we show our love and respect for each other. Let them know that in your family, that is an important thing to do. Kids are naturally loving and friendly and will most likely get on board with you and your plan without any fuss. You just have to make it seem fun and important.

It’s important for you (and your spouse or any other adult who is regularly present) to use the props too, so that they don’t think it’s just a “baby thing.” At the end of the meal, congratulate them for their “really grown-up behavior” during dinner, if they were able to do a pretty good job. Oooohhh and Aahhhhh over how wonderful it was to have such good listening and thoughtful sharing and how happy that makes you. It may take some practice in the beginning, but if you are consistent and make it fun, it will work!


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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