How To Solve Dinner Battles?

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Dear Miriam, 

My 8-year-old son hates sitting at the dinner table. He enjoys spending time with the rest of our family, and he’s a pretty good eater, so those aren’t the reasons. He can’t articulate what the problem is, but every night, inevitably, he either makes excuses to avoid coming to the table or sits briefly and then moves on to something else. What can we do to make family dinners last longer than five minutes? 


Sitting at Supper 


Dear Sitting, 

One of the very most important parenting mantras you can adopt is “pick your battles.” If you decide that your son sitting at the dinner table is your top priority, you can probably make it happen. But realize that it might be at the expense of a clean room or kind words or another family activity. You can bribe or punish, cajole or beg, but if what you really want out of family dinners is togetherness, no negatively coercive path will end with a positive outcome. 

But before you go giving up on family dinners, you need to try again to get to the bottom of your son’s dislike of this activity. Maybe he needs more physical activity between school and dinner so that sitting still is easier. Maybe he needs a smaller afternoon snack so that he’s hungrier and wants to be where the food is. Maybe he dislikes a smell at the table – either food or a person! Maybe the chairs are uncomfortable to him or the conversation is boring or there’s just something else he’d rather do. Ask him some questions when the two of you are alone and calm, and then really listen to see if you can learn something new. 

After you do some listening and fact-finding, be willing to make substantive changes. Can you come to an agreement that it’s sufficient for him to spend seven minutes at the table before he’s excused, and then praise him for it afterward? Can you set the expectations that he can do what feels right to him during the week but needs to sit with the family for Shabbat dinner? Can you enlist him to help meal plan, decide on the seating arrangement, or plan a fun word game that everyone can play while eating? Can you encourage coloring or electronics or fidgets at the table? Can you get him to agree to try some things out and then reassess together? 

When you want something that goes counter to what works for your children, as long as everyone is safe, I would encourage you to be the one who makes the bigger compromise. You have your whole adult life to arrange as you see fit, and your eight-year-old has a comparatively small number of things over which to exert preferences and control. You can absolutely be disappointed that family dinners don’t meet your own expectations, but family relationships are so much more important than any one aspect of family life. You’ll build better relationships by listening to your child’s needs than you will by forcing him to sit at the table. 

Be well,