They want to help you have better talks with your children

TiffinTalk cofounders Kat Rowan and Michael Friesen demonstrating how their card "game" works Friday Dec. 16.

It's a conversation we've all participated in, as a parent, a child, or both.

Parent: "How was your day?"

Child: "Fine."

Parent: "What did you do today?"

Child: "Nothing."

Kat Rowan is a talker. She wasn't settling for one-word answers from her two daughters. So she sent them to school each day — elementary through high school — with a handwritten note tucked in their lunches. Each would pose a question Rowan would use as a starting point for an individual conversation with the girls later in the day.

On Monday, Sept. 19, 2005, daughter Maurah Steinmetz was asked: "How was your weekend? What made it special? Did it feel like the best weekend of the season?"

In all, Rowan, 51, a single mother and former high school math teacher now living in Media, penned 4,160 cards. They now form the basis for TiffinTalk, a business she cofounded with another former teacher, Michael Friesen, 50, of Havertown, that produces sets of cards intended to help users build stronger relationships through face-to-face conversations.

That's right. No texting. No cellphones. Or, as TiffinTalk's tag line puts it, "Tech Off. Talk On."

Tiffin is a British/Indian term for lunch pail.

"We were brazen enough to believe we could be a global company," Rowan said of the business name.

In fact, TiffinTalk has been contacted by a distributor asking whether the company is interested in doing business overseas. But right now, the emphasis is on reaching its initial U.S. target market — parents, young children, teenagers, and adult children, as well as mental-health professionals and their clients — and meeting the domestic requests for other subsets of cards. The most pressing demand is for a line designed for teachers, which is coming soon, Rowan and Friesen said.

Others under consideration would help couples, adult siblings, and businesses interested in improving communication among young employees — "Millennials don't talk, they text," Rowan said.

Yet to expand its offerings, TiffinTalk needs to build sales, said Rowan, who has spent close to $80,000 in retirement funds as start-up capital. The company has not had luck attracting investors, who are looking for opportunities in pharmaceuticals, technology, and biotech, Rowan said.

Since launching in March at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington —  the largest gathering of mental-health professionals on the East Coast, where TiffinTalk got an enthusiastic response — the company has sold a few hundred boxes of conversation cards. Designed to last a season, a box includes 65 daily cards for $60. Refills are $50. The full line can be found at www.tiffintalk.com.

Much time between conception and launch went into designing the cards, said Rowan, chief executive and creative director. Each includes space for personal notes. And, in the case of the parent-child line, they are designed by grade level, with vocabulary that is appropriate for each stage and a different theme each week.

For instance, a question for a preschooler might be: "Can you make a sentence with the rhyming words cap, map and tap?"

For a high school student, the theme one week was "What can you offer the world?" One day's card included this statement by Chris Guillebeau, an entrepreneur best known for the Art of Non-Conforming blog: "Invest in people." And the TiffinTalk questions: "Why? How can you do this? What's in it for you? Can your investing in people affect the world at large?"

Even the cards themselves are meant to stimulate. For the parent-child line, the card for each day of the week includes one puzzle piece, with the full picture exposed on the final day. The backs of the cards are "no-parent zones," filled with interesting facts — the difference between penguins and puffins, for instance — or fun challenges (Name words ending in scopes.)

For the time-constrained, daily use is not mandatory, of course.

"The magic is what the card enables, and that's the conversation," whenever it happens, said Friesen, director of operations and technology.

Alicia Carey, a high school English teacher from Collegeville, is so impressed with what TiffinTalk has inspired in her 6-year-old daughter that when a friend asked what she could get Dori for Christmas, "I said, 'Would you mind buying us the next set of TiffinTalk cards?' "

Dori looks forward to pulling out the cards each night at dinner. To her mother's delight, "dinnertimes have gotten longer," Alicia Carey said.