Q God bless their extroverted little souls, but my kids, age 3 and 7, never stop talking. They chatter on and on throughout dinner, sometimes making it last more than an hour because they haven’t had a chance to eat with all the talking. They interrupt and talk over each other and others, and generally create a wall of sound. I love our conversations and will no doubt miss them when they are sullen teens, but as an introvert (and probably just as a human being), I find it exhausting. We don’t lack for time to talk one on one, so it’s not that they are competing for attention or feeling unheard. They just don’t seem to have an off button. Can you help?
A This question reminds me of the mom who wrote to me recently about how her children would not stop pestering her to play. Although their attention might be missed in the future, the present is becoming too much to bear.
How can we bring some ease to dinner?
First, recognize that there may be a bit of a mismatch between you and your children, temperamentally speaking. You say that you are introverted (needing more time and space by yourself, as well as needing to recharge after being with people for an extended period of time), but you may be raising little extroverts (deriving energy from being with others, not needing as much time away from others). This is exhausting, and many introverted parents have been left feeling inadequate for a long time. “Why can’t I enjoy this youthful energy more?” “Why don’t I love the sound of my happy children?” This guilt and shame can erode parent-child relationships, so please do not see your introversion as a flaw or something you need to bully yourself out of. For more support on this subject, check out Susan Cain’s website, Quiet Revolution (quietrev.com).
And whether or not the children are completely extroverted, young children tend to be loud, boisterous and full of enthusiasm. Three-year-olds especially have a great deal to express, and express it they will.
So, my first recommendation is that you have sufficient self-care. I am not saying that introverted parents are special snowflakes who need something different from everyone else. I am asking you to take a real inventory of what your parenting life is like and to decide where you can make changes.
For instance, are you getting enough alone time during your hours without the children? I don’t know about the daytime hours, but can the 3-year-old go to a little play group for a bit? Can a babysitter come a couple of days a week? Can you swap time with a friend who also has a child the same age? This doesn’t have to be many hours of your life, and it doesn’t need to be perfect. I am just looking for some time for you to fill up your cup and allow the built-up stress to subside. To find simple peace in your everyday life, check out Pleasance Silicki’s book “Delight: Eight Principles for Living With Joy and Ease.”
But we still have the issue of dinner and the cacophony of talking.
One technique that I teach almost all of my clients is the family meeting. There is no right or wrong way to do a family meeting, but there are some basic practices:
1. You (and your partner) are in charge of the meeting.
2. You choose a talking piece (a wooden spoon, a Lego, a saltshaker, whatever you’d like), and whoever is holding the talking piece is the only one who may speak.
3. Each family member takes turns sharing a rose (a good thing about the day), a thorn (a bad thing about the day) and something they are grateful for. Every family member talks, no one is allowed to interrupt, and everyone can have as many turns as they’d like.
4. Close the meeting with a little treat or game. (I like fresh fruit or a little cookie.)
What does this meeting do?
•It promotes respectfully listening to others and waiting your turn.
•It encourages reflection and gratitude. ( The 3-year-old may have more of a stream of consciousness, and that is normal. The reflection and gratitude will come.)
•It gives structure to daily conversation.
•It demonstrates that the parents also have something to say.
•And it shows how the meal (and the sharing) draws to an end.
It is exceedingly important for you to go nice and easy with this. There will be evenings that the meetings fail miserably. Abort the mission and finish the meal as lovingly as you can. There will be meetings in which you are helping one child listen to the other without interrupting. This will be tiring. There may be meetings in which a little timer is used for each family member to ensure that the meeting ends in your lifetime. There will be laughing, crying and anger.
But in time, you will take charge of the dinner dynamic. You and your children will be able to have conversations that are respectful, quieter and more focused.
Finally, I know that you don’t think this is a competition between the children, but as a coach, I see a possible dynamic occurring: Exhausted mom not fully in charge plus exuberant children equals the children commanding the direction of the meal. They are not consciously battling each other, but in the absence of their mom being in charge, these children are taking control of dinnertime. Volume and speaking over each other are the ways they are trying to seize control. One child is loud; the other gets louder. One child says, “Mom!” over and over; the other says it even more. Again, none of this is planned misbehavior or brattiness. It is two children filling a vacuum of control left empty by the parent.
So, allow the structure and routine of the meeting to bring peace to your meals. It takes lots of practice, a good sense of humor and a sense of ease.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for May 11.