Baby loves to eat with the rest of the family. And it's good not only for baby’s health, but also baby’s behavior. Research shows that families who eat dinner together frequently have children who do better in school, and develop more positive behavior patterns.
Mealtimes offer a unique opportunity for parents and children to talk with each other for extended periods of time. The back-and-forth conversations that take place during mealtimes promote children’s language abilities.
Two types of mealtime talk seem to be particularly helpful for children’s language learning – narrative and explanatory. Narrative talk describes things - what happened today or will happen tomorrow, or how we might solve a problem. Explanatory talk answers children’s questions or helps them understand something.
These kinds of mealtime talk expose children to more complex words and language, help them learn about their world, and teach them conversational turn-taking skills.
“Children are very different in their levels of language development when they first enter school,” acknowledges Dr. Dave Riley, of the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “One reason may be differences in the amount of language interaction that takes place between parents and children during everyday activities, such as mealtimes.”
Indeed, studies show that young children who participate more often in extended mealtime conversations score higher on vocabulary and reading tests later on in school.
Don’t forget to include baby in mealtime conversations even before baby knows any words to reply. Babies begin learning language long before they can speak. Talk about the different foods he’s eating as you feed him or what a good job he does feeding himself. When baby makes sounds repeat them back to her. This excites baby and encourages her to keep practicing sounds.
One kind of mealtime talk isn’t very helpful for language learning. Management talk such as “finish your vegetables” or “don’t rock your chair” seldom involves the use of complex words or language, or turn-taking. So children have fewer opportunities to learn language skills. Dr. Riley offers this tip for managing your child: instead of drawing attention to a child’s misbehavior, try encouraging the behavior you want.
One way to encourage family members to engage in conversation is to keep family mealtime pleasant. Turn off the TV and save negative topics for another time. “You might even make a family tradition of each person talking about one nice thing that happened that day - or one nice thing they did for someone else,” suggests Dr. Carol Ostergren, of the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “Whatever you talk about, try to keep the topics positive so everyone looks forward to mealtime.”
Besides encouraging language skills, regular family mealtimes also promote more healthful eating habits for children. More fruits and vegetables and fewer foods with unhealthy fats are consumed when families eat together, rather than on the run.
So set aside time - most days - for dinner together, and include baby. Spending time together eating and talking as a family builds strong family bonds, along with important literacy skills.
Author: Carol Ostergren