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“So, what happened in school today?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Yeah, just stupid stuff.”

Have you ever had a conversation like this with your son or daughter?

Perhaps you shrugged your shoulders and said to yourself, “Kids want to talk with their friends, not me.”

Or maybe you thought: “There must be a better way of talking with kids and learning more about what’s happening in their lives.”

It’s true. Kids, despite all their behaviors that push parents away, are really hungry for a strong bond with their parents that will provide rules, predictability and structure. Talking together at dinner is one way to build such relationships.

Furthermore, years of research from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have shown that one of the best ways to help kids avoid alcohol and other substance use is to have regular family dinners.

Annual surveys done by the National Center compare teens who had five to seven family dinners weekly with teens who ate dinner with their families fewer than three times a week. In 2011, those who ate fewer family meals together were:

  • About four times more likely to use tobacco.
  • Over twice as likely to use alcohol.
  • 2 1/2 times more likely to use marijuana.
  • Almost four times as likely to predict that they would try drugs in the future.

So what is the magic ingredient for family dinners? Why does eating together frequently have such a strong effect on kids? No, it isn’t the food, or the place, or just being together — it is the conversation during the meal.

The website for the National Center has a list of conversation starters for families. They are all open-ended questions that don’t have one right answer and only a few focus on the events of that day. They could help get your kids talking and starting to build a stronger bond with you.

Here’s some sample questions from the National Center that you might try:

  • What’s the best and worst thing that happened today?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
  • What is one thing you could absolutely not live without?

It can be hard for parents to step out of their parent role and really listen without giving advice. But the other half of the conversation equation is listening. With good listening, strong bonds and trust can be built, thus helping to prevent kids from trying risky behaviors.

Every year the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University sponsors “Family Day – A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children.” This year’s event is Sept. 24. Join families across Missoula on that day who will be enjoying a dinner together, whether at home, in a restaurant, or at a park.

And try out some of those conversation starters.

The Missoulian Health page features a column by the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth, a coalition under the Office of Planning and Grants that works collaboratively to help Missoula’s kids grow up to be healthy and resilient. Susan Barmeyer works in early childhood for the Forum and can be reached at 721-3000, extension 1022 or sbarmeyer@co.missoula.mt.us. The forum is sponsoring a Community Conversation about Parenting with guest speaker John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., on October 16th, 7-8:30 p.m., in the University Center Theater.

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