Let me clarify. After ten years together, we still have plenty to discuss. But like many couples with children, we don't get much chance to actually talk. Our 8-year-old daughter burns with the desire to join in every adult conversation. Our 5-year-old son is prone to bursting loudly into song at the dinner table. Between the two of them, the two of us don't stand a chance.
What's a couple to do? For answers, Family Life turned to parenting pros as well as formerly discussion-starved parents who have found smart strategies for getting a word in edgewise.
Susan Korones Gifford is a writer and editor who lives in New Jersey with her husband and two talkative kids.
Carve Out Chat TimeOnce you have kids, the words "planned parenthood" tend to take on new meaning. "If things are really busy and we have something important to discuss, my husband and I actually schedule a conversation on our Palm Pilots," says Lisa Halpern, a mother of two in West Hartford, CT. "Otherwise, days go by, and the issue doesn't get resolved."
Lisa Miller, a Glen Ridge, NJ, mother of two, makes sure all homework, feeding, and bathing are done by the time her husband gets home from work at 7:30. Then the couple sits down to dinner while their girls play in their rooms. "That's when we talk," she says. "It's a ritual that helps us to stay connected."
Other parents play hide-and-speak, like Hannelore Melville of Birmingham, AL, who hangs out in the bathroom with her husband each morning while he showers. "We actually get about fifteen minutes uninterrupted," she says, "because our kids think it's just Daddy in there alone."
Encourage Equal-Opportunity ConfabsGot a kid who's constantly interrupting you at the dinner table? Many parents I spoke with have made dinner conversation a take-your-turn affair. For example, Mom gets to talk about her job for five minutes, Dad about weekend plans, and each kid about school and friends. By dessert, everyone's been heard.
Linda Moore of Chicago has a daughter, Ann, who had a particularly bad case of conversation interruptus when she was 7. Linda's husband cured it by giving Ann a taste of her own medicine. "Charles started cutting Ann off when she was in the middle of a sentence, and when she got really mad, he pointed out to her how it felt," Linda explains. "After a few nights of this, Ann learned to wait her turn -- and we also made sure to give her ample time to share news about her day. But if she backslides, Charles starts interrupting her again."
Lay Down the LawIt's not easy asking children to keep their mouths shut, especially when you're a well-meaning, conscientious parent hell-bent on turning out involved, socialized kids. I don't know about you, but I feel downright rude holding a prolonged conversation that excludes my children when they're around. But here's the catch: Most chats I want to have with my husband exclude them by default, since not many 7-year-olds know about the Middle East or care about that great pine armoire on sale at the antiques store downtown.
"At dinner, our conversation often isn't one our 5-year-old is looking to have, so she'll jump in with her own topic," says Peter Caplan, father of a 5- and 2-year-old in Sharon, MA. "Then, because she's so insistent -- repeating 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy' -- the topic shifts." Next thing you know, the Caplans are discussing Scooby-Doo or joining in a rousing chorus of said show's theme song.
Does it have to be this way? To a point, yeah, says Anthony E. Wolf, author of The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids -- from Toddlers to Preteens -- Without Threats or Punishment, who notes that parents sometimes forget that a family meal is not the place for an important conversation -- and that serious topics should be addressed at other times. "You want to encourage input; it's supposed to be a little chaotic," he says. But if the interruptions are getting out of hand, he recommends a trial separation between your child and the dinner table. "Move your child to another room, and say, 'If you want to return to the table, you can't do the silly talk.' This may sound punitive, but it's not -- you're setting boundaries." You can also explain that a portion of every meal will include what mom and dad want to talk about. "If you keep insisting on it meal after meal, without getting angry, most kids eventually will respect it," says Wolf.
Away from the dinner table, you can set even more limits, adds Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! "Make sure kids know that there are some things that adults need private time to discuss, like paying bills." And if your child interrupts you anyway as you and your husband are talking in the living room? Gently but firmly say, "Unless there's an emergency, when your father and I are talking, you are going to have to wait your turn."
Delight Kids to DistractionOf course, some kids may become consumed with finding out what your conversation is about. In that case, says Severe, "you might want to put on a short video." Occasionally relying on the electronic babysitter won't land you a spot in the Bad Parents Hall of Fame; we all do it now and then. But also try engaging kids with board games, art projects, computer play, or other toys. Says Jodi Petry of Indianapolis: "I get my three kids working on a puzzle. It's completely engrossing, so they forget about us."
In the end, though, you're probably going to have to settle for catch-as-catch-can confabs with the person you married. Seize your opportunities -- while you're washing the dinner dishes or the kids are doing homework or unexpectedly fall asleep in the backseat of the car. Just make sure that when those golden gifts of time appear, you don't spend all of them congratulating yourselves on raising such bright, curious, verbal children.