How Do I Get My Kids To Come Down For Dinner?

12/30/2011 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012

Dear Susan,

Even though I am tired after a long day at work I put something together so we can all sit down for dinner together. The trouble is, my kids -- 8 and 14 -- won't come to the table unless I threaten to take away the younger one's TV time or the older one's cell phone. How can I get my kids to hear me the first time when I call them for dinner?

Chef BoyarMom

Dear Chef,

Most kids have selective hearing; they screen out what they don't want to hear. You may have noticed this when you're doing something with your 14-year-old in the kitchen and she suddenly springs into action when she detects the soft blurp of her cell phone down the hall, indicating a new text message has arrived.

The issue probably isn't about your kids hearing you. (Unless of course you suspect they have a legitimate auditory problem which you should have professionally checked.) It's about what they choose to attend to, which is almost always the computer, TV or cell phone.

One of the best ways to deal with chronic parenting problems is to establish rituals. And one of the best ways to create rituals that will stick is to introduce them at a family meeting, where your kids -- like you -- feel their voice is being heard.

Start your meeting by offering each member of the family an appreciation or two. If you focus on what your kids are doing wrong, they'll be anything but receptive. Create a climate of connection, and from that stance, talk about how important it is to you to have time with them to check in, spend time together, and hear about their day. Acknowledge that when you call them to dinner, you're probably interrupting some kind of fun. Don't lecture, just let them know that you understand that it's sometimes hard to tear themselves away from a favorite show or "crucial" Facebook chat with a friend.

Then offer your kids the chance to tell you how much lead time would be ideal for them in terms of disentangling themselves from whatever they're doing to come to the table. While I'm not suggesting you tiptoe around your kids, I do think it's important to let them ask themselves what they need, and to feel that you're willing to incorporate their transitional style into the pre-dinner ritual, even if you aren't always going to be able to comply. You can establish natural consequences for when they forget, if this is important to your parenting approach, but an open conversation may preclude the need for that.

Figure out what works for them and is realistic for you. It may be that you give them a fifteen minute warning to shut off all devices, and then have them come set the table so they're already in the kitchen when you serve the food. Or it might work best to gather your kids by joining them where they are for a minute and then having them follow you to the table. What I have learned in working with kids is that hollering from the other end of the house to a kid who's merged with an engaging activity, like a TV show or video game, is about as effective as whispering from down the street.

Make sure the dinner table is an inviting place to come, rather than a tense, stressful experience. When kids know that they're not only going to be nourished by food, but by the warm presence of their loved ones, it helps them resist the pull of other activities.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

Suggest a correction