The bear and the bell: an experiment in calmer family dinners

I’m stumbling along in this world like everyone else, but sometimes I stumble on to something pretty cool – like this dinner time experiment I dreamt up to get my kids to be kinder and calmer at the dinner table. Here’s how it went down …

So, the ages of our kids and the work hours we keep mean we’re lucky enough to get to eat together every night. I know that’s not possible for every family, and we’re all doing the best we can.

I love the fact we can have family dinners. What I don’t love so much is the clatter and chaos that frequently erupts when three little people and two tired adults come together after a long day. Combine a bit of bickering with constant competition to have the loudest or last or longest word, and some dinner times end up being more stressful than constructive.

Anyway, over the long (long) hot summer here in Utah, the number of stressful dinners started to outweigh the relatively peaceful ones. The days were long, the kids were a bit bored, and by dinner time we’d already racked up a lot of hours together under the one roof. You can imagine, right?

Enter the bear and the bell.

I was trying to work out how to remind the kids to listen to someone else speak without interrupting them with their own exciting story. I wanted everyone to share the ‘stage’ relatively calmly and politely so we could dispense with dinner pretty quickly and get on to the best bit: sleeping!

I remembered a trick from an old British TV show where parents would use a wooden spoon as a “talking stick”: whoever held the stick, got to talk without interruption. It seemed to work well on TV.

So in searching for an appropriate “talking stick” for our dinner table, I grabbed a soapstone bear I’d recently picked up as a souvenir from Yellowstone National Park, and an old brass bell I’d bought on eBay years ago.

The rules were pretty simple: If you’re holding the bear, you get to speak uninterrupted. If someone interrupts you (not just to ask a question, but to talk over the top with their own story), my husband or I could ring the bell. Simple.

And, voila: it worked – partly because of the novelty factor and partly because of the clearer guidelines around expectations I’d say (but I'm no parenting expert). The kids took turns holding the bear and trying to avoid the bell.

For a few months, the bear and the bell were regular dinner guests at our table. The kids were better at taking turns and remembering to listen to others without interrupting.

The bear and the bell came to dinner ...

The bear and the bell came to dinner ...

Did it last? Lately we have used the bear and the bell less often, but I think the general intention remains. The months we used the bear and the bell were enough to redirect the kids’ dinner time behavior and solidify a new habit in us all.

These days, dinners aren’t completely calmer (but that’s not really possible or even desirable with young kids), but they’re heaps better. The bear and the bell still watch over dinner from their respective window sill and shelf, but these days we’ve moved on to another experiment – a short gratitude practice that I got from Brene Brown.

But I’ve got to point out that none of this is perfect and it's impossible to make it so. Some nights we forget. Some nights we’re too tired to even remember our own names let alone the latest dinner time experiment. It’s just a thing that works well sometimes. It’s just another way to try to be kinder and calmer. And onward we go …

Do you have any clever meal time tricks? How do you keep family meal times relatively calm?

Natalie Bartley