What is Dinner Table Syndrome and Why Does It Matter?
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
I’ve always believed that enjoying meals as a family on a regular basis is super important, and is perhaps the most important part of our day. Coming from a multilingual family where we communicate in American Sign Language and English, with two Deaf parents and a hearing sister, our table was full of storytelling, laughter and love. I know my experience wasn’t necessarily typical. Many children who are Deaf or hard of hearing often find themselves watching their family or friends enjoy conversations with each other, while struggling to keep up, or worse, find themselves unable to understand anything at all. When Deaf or hard of hearing people aren’t able to follow the conversation, they end up feeling lost or confused, and though it’s not intentional, they feel excluded. While this happens often at the “dinner table” with family or friends, “Dinner Table Syndrome” can happen anywhere and at any age- riding in a car, at work or school, even on the playground. When children experience inaccessible communications with their family, it can leave them feeling disconnected and like they don’t belong. They can find themselves in a room full of people, yet they feel totally alone.
According to Deafchildren.org, more than 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, and 88% of those parents will never learn sign language- a decision that impacts Deaf children for the rest of their life. Having a shared language with their family allows children to not only feel a sense of belonging, but it can also have an impact far into adulthood.
Dinner time with family should be a time of sharing each other’s day, when everyone can participate equally and openly. However for many Deaf children and adults, dinner table talk can be dreaded and stressful. Hearing people rely on audio cues to take “turns” talking, often interrupting each other, with rapid-exchanges and back-and-forth interactions. This fast “turn-taking” makes it hard for a Deaf person to keep up. In hearing, non-signing homes or social circles, Deaf and hard of hearing children often miss out on physical “turn-taking” clues that are prevalent in American Sign Language (ASL). By the time they realize who’s talking, the conversation has moved on; they are always steps behind. When asking for an explanation, a child may be told “it’s not important” or “don’t worry about it”. For children, this disconnectedness can lead to them falling behind in more than just family chatter.
While general learning can be provided through schooling, Deaf and hard of hearing children who are raised in homes with ASL have more ability to benefit from informal and incidental learning- something that hearing people take for granted. I believe that ASL does not have to be exclusive and should be one of many languages used in the household. By participating in conversations utilizing multiple languages including sign languages, Deaf children (and people of all ages) accumulate more knowledge and information which leads to increased skills in areas such as problem solving, leadership and health literacy. By being a participant in conversation, as opposed to a bystander, a Deaf child feels more connected, becomes more knowledgeable, and more confident. Additionally, children who sign tend to perform better academically, report less depression as teens, and may live more successful, independent lives.
In every family, there are communication barriers. And in your family, I know there is love. As parents, you want the best for your child. You don’t want them left sitting alone on the playground, or feeling insecure going in for their first job interview. When communication is placed on the foundation of an accessible language for your child, she will thrive. I know that raising your child is a very personal choice, and I’m not trying to convince you that your plans for speech therapy or hearing devices won’t be beneficial. I’m suggesting you implement all possible avenues for language acquisition including Sign Language, as well as other options that work for your child such as speech therapy and assistive technology. Just consider making American Sign Language the foundation, to remove the barriers and stop the “Dinner Table Syndrome” from having a lasting impact. ASL can work beautifully with any language, especially the language you already share with your child: love.
Keep these things in mind this holiday season as we gather around our family tables (literally or virtually), and please make a concerted effort to include your Deaf of hard of hearing family members and friends of all ages in the conversation, no matter how insignificant the chatter may seem.
Also consider wearing or gifting one of our "I Love You" signature pendants this year - statement jewelry is a great way to display your inclusivity and remind those you're closest to that you love them no matter what!