Family Dining :: A case for "screens" at the table

 Image: Anthropologie Europe

Image: Anthropologie Europe

I have learned in my 18 years as a parent never to say never. Long before I had my own children I had all the answers. I knew exactly what I would do and what I wouldn't. Then one by one my children arrived and I tossed all that nonsense out the door. Should "screens" be allowed at the table? In short, no. But I've learned that there's an exception to this rule too. 

In my own home I do not allow iPhones, Pods or Pads at the table. Nor do I favor them in restaurants. I do allow my kids to check them on occasion, or use them to take a picture. (How can I tell them no when I am often doing so myself, especially if it is for a work-related project.) That said, these devices are not allowed to sit out on tables and must be tucked away in a purse, bag or pocket. My case for screens at the table is not for my children or older children, but specifically for younger ones. At a certain age there comes a time when a young child can sit (fairly) quietly and entertain him or herself, with or without a parent and color or play tic-tac-toe, hangman and whatnot.

When my children were really young we had a great big bag of tricks we brought whenever we went out. In the bag were soft toys, bright plastic things, containers of Cheerios, sippy cups filled with watered down apple juice, and whatever it took to keep our little ones quiet and entertained. As the kids matured so did the toys. Going always a huge production and often draining, but sometimes a change of scenery was greatly needed. We didn't often take the kids out at night, and certainly not to very nice restaurants during those early years. But would we have if technology had allowed us to do? I have to wonder.

The other night I was out with a dear friend at a local French bistro that's very much a favorite of mine. It's small and it's quaint and in true bistro fashion, the tables tend to be on top of one another. The food is fantastic. Sitting next to us, to my left hand side, was a young couple and their two very young children - I'd say the boy was under two and the girl was about 4, maybe younger. The parents sat across from one another engaged in deep conversation, clearly enjoying each other's company.

As I smiled at the littlest child who had looked up to acknowledge my presence my friend looked at me and quietly made a comment about how positively unacceptable the phones were. Each child had a small hand-held device on the table in front of him on which something age-appropriate was playing. Now, while I tend to agree in most cases, there are always exceptions to the rule. This wasn't a casual kid-friendly restaurant, but an upscale French bistro with diners enjoying a quiet night with good food, who certainly didn't want to be disturbed. These children were angelic, glued to their screens perhaps, but angelic.

So, you may ask, why not do as we did and engage with the children? Why not bring out a pad of paper, or Cheerios and such? If you've ever dined out with kids you know just how exhausting it is to entertain the very young at the table and keep them quiet and well behaved. It's practically a full time job and often prevents you from being able to eat and enjoy your own meal. Of course you could argue then why not just stay home, especially if you're going to insist that your iPhone or iPad is doing the babysitting anyhow? 

What if mom and dad want to go out and spend some quality time together?  Sometimes this is easier said than done. Babysitters are often hard to come by, and these days charge a small fortune. Where I live the going rate for a babysitter is $15 to $25 and hour. AN HOUR! A night out can seriously dent the wallet.

I know first hand how important it is to have that time to connect with your spouse - how important it is to dedicate specific time for the love that came into your life before your children, and that that relationship must also be nurtured and cared for. Sometimes you have to put yourselves, as a couple, first - before the children. Far too few couples do this. 

Some of you might argue why not just wait until the kids are in bed. And I will say, this is impossible. At the end of the day, by the time you've put in a full day at the office, or a full day at home with the kids, then fed, bathed and tucked them in, you are so completely depleted of all physical and mental energy that you just want to sink down into the couch or crawl into bed. Even if your best friend and partner is by your side it's still not the same thing as taking time to go out on a date.  

This brings me back to the restaurant with the two parents were able to enjoy some deep uninterrupted conversation and enjoy each other's company. When the food came, the screens went away; they all ate and the focus shifted back to the family. Throughout the meal the children were perfectly behaved. Had they not been next to me, and had the 2 year old not been flirting with me  from the next table I would not have known they were there. 

When I remember back to those days, which seem so distant now, I remember how stressful dining out with young children was, and how stressful it was to find a sitter, I do think that had screens been allowed back then they might have been, in certain situations, allowed at the table. I applaud those parents who make themselves a priority. Not everyone has the gift of baby sitters, nannies or even family nearby, and sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to make it work.

I'd love to hear your feedback on this!