Seven Practical Ideas for a Technology-Free Family Dinner

Kids and personal electronic devices: it’s a frequently discussed topic. Articles abound offering advice about how much time your kids should (or should not) spend on their iPad/Kindle/phone, which games on Xbox/Wii are acceptable (and which are not), or which TV show/movie is appropriate for your kids. This is not one of those articles.

These are great ideas! Check them out if you need new ideas for banning the phone at dinner.

I’m a firm believer that, on the whole, parents make good decisions for their kids, based on their own priorities, morals, and circumstances.

Just so you know where I’m coming from, here’s a quick sketch of our family media rules:

  • We let our kids (now in sixth grade) largely self-regulate their screen time.
  • The boys know our family rules about violence, misogyny, and racism. If they are unsure about whether a movie, song, or app is out of bounds, we encourage them to research it and then discuss it with us.
  • We expect the boys to be well-rounded in their activities, so that any one activity does not dominate their free time.
  • Our kids understand that we expect their iPhones to be turned off during school, bedtime hours, and mealtimes.

Mealtimes are where we occasionally get stuck.

Grand commands and ultimatums rarely work at my house. They are just a chance to back our kids into a corner and start an argument. I try to only impose my will on real issues of physical or emotional safety, not the monotonous, “no phones at the dinner table” entreaty.

Despite our best efforts, sometimes our kids still would prefer to bring their cell phones to the dinner table, especially if we are eating out. So what do we do?

First, we remind them of our family rule: no personal electronic devices at the dining table. Then, we distract!

Over the years, we have developed quite the repertoire of family dinner games. These are group participation, no-one-gets-eliminated types of games. The point is to keep everyone engaged and talking to each other and not focused on pining over their devices.

So, if you are fighting the same battle, here is a quick peek at some games that work for us!

The Animal Game

This is basically 20 questions, except we only pick animals. One person chooses an animal but keeps it a secret. Everyone else takes turns asking “yes” or “no” questions to gain information about the chosen animal until someone can guess the animal’s identity correctly.

The person who correctly guesses the animal gets to choose the next animal.

Over the years, this game has helped our kids learn about taxonomy and critical thinking. It works great for kids of all ages—just adjust the obscurity of the animal or the sophistication of the questions based on the player’s abilities.

The Alphabet Game

In the Alphabet Game, one person chooses a topic and then each person takes turns naming something in that category. The first person chooses an exemplar starting with A, then the next person’s word must start with B, and so on… If someone gets stuck, we offer a little help and keep going. The person who has the word starting with Z, gets to choose the next topic.

At lunch the other day, our four topics were people’s names, drinks, flora & fauna, and salad toppings. We mix it up among things that make us laugh and topics that make us think.

Two Truths & a Lie

Want to learn more than you could ever imagine about your kids? Stop asking them about their day and try Two Truths & a Lie. Each person writes down (or says) three things about themselves: two truths and one lie. Everyone else has to guess which tidbit is a lie.

I recently learned about the time my youngest son plotted (premeditated and with malice) to steal $5 from his older brother.

This or That

You may know this by the name “Would You Rather?” One person decides on a dichotomy and poses it to the table. Something like “would you rather eat sushi or cauliflower?” Once the question is posed, each person playing decides (silently) which option they prefer. Then everyone else tries to guess the other players’ preferences.

You can keep score if you want, but we like to just learn about each other and laugh. As the boys have entered middle school, we are hearing a lot of middle school humor. It provides an interesting peek into our child’s inner lives and imaginations.

I Spy…

Develop your kid’s powers of observation with an old-school style game of I Spy. One person chooses an item in your immediate surroundings, and everyone else asks questions to figure out that item’s identity. You can make it harder or easier by varying the rules about questions or about how obvious the chosen item should be. We like to see who can “spy” the hardest item to uncover, so we’ll keep track of how many questions it takes to guess the item correctly. The person who chooses the item with the most questions, wins.

Group Story Telling

Get the creative juices going! One person starts a story with a sentence or two, but they don’t tell the entire story. Take turns adding to (and changing up) the story. We’ve used different rules at different times. Sometimes we set a limit on how many sentences each person gets before their turn is over. Sometimes we pick a genre (e.g., comedy or ghost story), and everyone has to maintain that theme. Our favorites are the no-rules stories—they always result in the most laughter.

Highs & Lows

Like Two Truths & a Lie, Highs & Lows is a great activity for sneaking your way around the question “how was school today?” Each person shares the highlight and low point of their week. The magical thing about this activity is watching your kids open up while developing new coping skills and practicing compassion.

Sometimes getting the boys on board with a family dinner game is the hardest part, but once we get started, they are quickly absorbed. People have asked which game is my favorite. The truth is, I don’t have one. I don’t care at all which game we play; I care that our family is talking, spending time together, and focusing on each other. That’s the magic of our family dinner games: They allow us to simply take the time to be a family, together.

Maggie is an entrepreneur and mother of two boys (Davis, age 10 & Patrick, age 9). She recently left her job in corporate healthcare strategy to open a family business (you can check out her blog at The Learning Lab). Her motherhood journey has included infertility, transracial adoption (Davis), a fortuitous pregnancy (Patrick), a child with mental health issues, managing serious pediatric asthma and parenting a profoundly gifted son. Maggie was born in Australia, but moved to Texas when she was a toddler. She met her husband, Rob, at Trinity University and after graduate school at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), they returned to San Antonio, which has been home for almost 20 years.