smartphones at dinner

Depending entirely on my energy level, mood, and what’s in the kitchen, dinner can be the most exciting or taxing part of my day. Sometimes I’m jazzed to whip up a from-scratch salad dressing, chop some cauliflower to roast or tweak a vegan bolognese I’m currently perfecting. Other times, I’m throwing frozen things on a cookie sheet and contemplating the freshness of some old head of romaine. It wildly varies. The truth is, when I’m relaxed and time is on my side, cooking is one of my favorite things to do. But “relaxed” is not always how my day shakes out, and I’m often scrambling to send that last email, or fire off that last text until it’s really too late to do anything inspired.

While I’m cooking, my kids are increasingly getting more involved. My 14 year-old son and I recently attended a knife skills class, and now he can chop things with a bit more precision (and look less frightening doing so), so he’s empowered to really help me get things done in the kitchen. And my daughter is always in anything-brother-can-do mode, so she’s increasingly interested in how I fry an egg, season a stir-fry or dice a carrot. Having them present in the kitchen ratchets down whatever stress I’m still harboring from the day, and being busy with kitchen tasks is the perfect foil for asking tough questions about school life… and actually getting answers.

What isn’t present in our kitchen is a smartphone. Not while we’re prepping or cooking or eating or clearing dinner. And if a smartphone pops out of anyone’s pocket during the meal, that person is relentlessly shamed until it has been placed on the other side of the room, far enough away so that even a vibration will be out of earshot.

I don’t know when I banned smartphones at dinner, but at some point, it happened.

I know people struggle to make this happen in their homes. Much is written about the importance of dinner time being a ‘sacred space’ where people put down their devices and actually connect with the people at the table, rather than the world out there. And yet there’s the phone… at the ready to settle a bet with a quick google search, or to be a receptacle for a to-do you don’t want to forget, or a quick email you want to fire off. Oh, and someone just texted me… and now I’m checking Facebook real quick….

Recently, even Barack Obama, our nation’s Father-In-Chief, chimed in, letting us know that he’s banned smartphones at dinner at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “There’s nothing wrong with every once in a while putting the technology aside and actually having a conversation,” he added, while at an event for a new initiative to bring wifi to low-income housing.

As you know, I’m all about connectivity. That said, smartphones are a seductive, hypnotic partner in the digital world we live in, and if you let them, they will take over your life at the detriment of all other relationships. Think of them like the co-dependent boyfriend who is constantly vying for your attention, jealous when you’re talking with someone else. Boundaries need to be established, or your life outside that relationship will start to shrink.

It’s very in vogue right now to blame technology for the demise of interpersonal relationships. Sherry Turkle is an author and MIT professor who has studied the effects technology has had on human beings for decades. In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, she observes children begging their parents to put down their cellphones, the effects of  watching someone slip into their smartphone mid-conversation, and the lack of empathy our children possess due to their increasingly digital communications. Apparently, you need to look up and into someone’s eyes with regularity to read their emotions and feel what their feeling— and you can’t do that while you’re texting “you there, bro?” to your friend from school.

And now I’m going to say something harsh: If you’re having trouble getting your kids to come to dinner without devices, that’s not a technology problem, that’s a parenting problem.

Maybe your kids are in that teenage unpleasant-ness phase, and it’s easier just to let things slide than to deal with their raving and door-slamming.

Maybe you have trouble setting limits, and your kids don’t respect your boundaries (in this case, I bet that smartphones at the table aren’t the worst problem you’re facing at home).

Maybe you’re going on your tenth hour staring at a pre-verbal baby, and man, sometimes that can be boring as all get-out.

Sometimes, though, just sometimes… you’re the one who wants to escape to Facebook/Fruit Ninja/Work Emails/Instagram, so it’s convenient that everyone is looking down so you can all be what Sherry Turkle calls, “Alone Together.”

All of this to say, it’s easy to be seduced. Don’t let your phone seduce you.

Back to my dinner table. Sometimes, with the kid’s schedule’s being what they are, and my desire to squeeze every minute out of the work day before it’s time to cook and eat, dinner is the first time we all come face to face since breakfast. It’s a time where the kids know they can bring up things that bother them, and we can unpack them. Lo and behold, they have actually started asking me how my day was (never thought that would happen!) and I use it as an opportunity to tell them what was great, what sucked, and how I dealt with it.

We aren’t always sitting around a beautiful home-cooked meal. Sometime’s we’re doing take-out, or even at a restaurant. But I try to ensure that there’s never a smartphone in sight, because what’s in front of me— kids who are truly present— is far more valuable. The latest research says that even the mere presence of a smartphone can lessen the quality of in-person conversation… even if no one is checking it. Just it’s presence splits people’s attention, and these days attention is the most valuable commodity around.

Now let me stress again, just in case I wasn’t clear: My tech habits aren’t perfect, or even close. I am not a shining example when it comes to all aspects of parenting in the digital age.

I wrestle with what I’m teaching my kids when I’m engaged in conversations, then hear a ding and act on it…

…or when I glance at my phone while stopped at a traffic light…

…or my daughter creeps into our room at 6:30am and finds me nose deep in the blue glow of my phone.

But this dinner thing is kind of a no-brainer. We all know what it feels like to be “phubbed” by a friend— you feel less than, devalued, not as interesting or important as whatever is on the screen. Why on earth would we want to do that to our kids… or teach them that it’s okay to put others “on pause” this way?

Aside: These days, meals are increasingly becoming a thing I shove in your face while I’m doing something else: Driving, phone calls, emailing, or watching TV. As a result, I’m never present with what I’m eating, which means I tend to eat more, a fact I’m remided of every time I get on the scale.

I encourage you to think about banning smartphones at dinner. Battle your urge to stay connected at all times, and ask yourself why that urge is so strong while you’re making and consuming that one meal with your family each night. Let’s face it— dinner with kids is, what twelve minutes long? It goes by so fast. Make it a ‘sacred space’ and check your feed after the dishes have been cleared.

Does this feel impossible? Let’s talk about it. I am here to offer guidance, however imperfect. Talk to me!

Photo borrowed from Food 52

3 comments on “Dinnertime”

  1. I read in a post by Maria Shriver, that she and her kids pile their phones on the center of their dining table. First one to go for a ringing/buzzing device, buys dinner. I wish my brother would do this for his family/friends. He probably would eat for free for a month of weekends! 😉

    1. Love this, but interestingly recent studies have shown that even a silent phone detracts from people’s focus and engagement at a table. So it might be good to take it to the next level and stack them elsewhere. 🙂

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