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Originally published Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Add conversation to mealtime

The Parent 'Hood: Tips on how to get conversation on the menu at dinnertime

Chicago Tribune

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Your dinner table has become oddly silent. How can you get your family talking again?

PARENT ADVICE (from our panel of staff contributors):

Start a daily assignment: Everyone must come to the table with "the best thing that happened to me today" and "the worst thing that happened to me" or "the most interesting story from the news to me today was." If that doesn't work, start the conversation rolling by reminiscing about your own childhood; kids seem to love these kind of stories. Or think of what the kids are particularly interested in and steer the conversation in that direction: the Cubs, Scouts, celebrities (it may take doing some homework on your part). If not, threaten to quiz them about spelling words or state capitals unless they start talking about something else.

— Dodie Hofstetter

Sort of depends on the age of the kids. Little ones are easier to engage in conversation: What did you do in school today? Who wants to help me give the dog a bath on Saturday? How is (insert name of best friend here) doing? etc. Older kids, of course, are more of a challenge. And, frankly, life is sometimes easier when you don't talk to them. But if you must, maybe you talk about dinner itself. How do you like the lasagna? Should I throw in some mushrooms next time? What else do you think might make it better? Food is still a good family talking point.

— Bill Hageman

Take a cue from Chris Matthews with a round of "Tell me something I don't know." It could be some arcane tidbit they learned in the classroom or the crazy prank that the class clown pulled. But everyone present (including parents) has to come up with something, just like the posse of reporters on the Sunday morning shows.

— Wendy Donahue

EXPERT ADVICE

Quiet doesn't have to mean disconnected, says Kim John Payne, author of "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids" (Ballantine Books).

"Because we're not chatting doesn't mean we're not close," Payne says. "Some of our most precious moments with our loved ones are just sitting quietly looking at a sunrise."

Time for silent reflection, after all, is a critical part of a kid's day.

"Their whole lives can't be talking, talking, talking, sleep," Payne says. "They need to digest all that's gone on during the day. When kids go quiet, it often means there is a lot of inner movement, as opposed to the outer movement we're used to."

Still, mealtimes may be one of the few opportunities to spend time together as a family, so it's understandable if you want to engage in some conversation. In that case, Payne suggests building in some pre-meal processing time.

"Ring-fence some down time so when they come to supper they've already had time to digest the day," he says. "I'm a big fan of boredom."

He's also a fan of "thorns and roses," in which each person at the table offers up their "thorn" for the day — what didn't go well, what they would have changed if they could — and their "rose" — what went well that day.

"It's a conversation that helps kids digest the day without having to be all chatty or goofy," Payne says. "It helps them process and also helps them talk."

Have a solution? Your siblings are mean to your kids. Your kids adore them anyway. Should you rock the boat? Email us at parenthood@tribune.com.

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