by Mary Jo Rapini
I was out for dinner last week. My husband and I went out to dinner recently at a to a family restaurant we both really like. It's low key, just the right amount of noise, and the food is wholesome and fresh. The restaurant attracts families because of the reasonable prices, but the families eating there are different than they use to be. Family dinners are fun when the whole family gets together to talk about the day’s events. Moms and dads can be heard laughing at their kids’ antics and expressions. While there was some of that interaction on this recent particular night, there was also a new interaction that I call “electronic parenting.”
At several tables, we noticed kids with ipads or phones engaged in their activity. There was absolutely no communication between the parents and the kids. The kids were careful not to spill food on their electronic devices and what seemed to make the biggest impact was a moment when one of the moms almost dropped the ketchup on her child's ipad. The child became animated and basically scolded mom. I was hopeful that if the electronics were babysitting the kids at least mom and dad would have some intimate time, but no, that wasn't the case. Mom and dad didn't really seem to engage with each other either; dad was fidgeting with his phone and mom looked frazzled. I thought about this scenario for several days because I am concerned about what these kids' concept of “family” will become.
Family dinners are so important for healthy ongoing communication among family members. Dinnertime is a time when we can listen to one another. Our children can be reminded of table manners and also be mentored about appropriate behaviors. You don't have to eat at home to have a family dinner, but a family dinner is about much more than eating a meal. Families need to see dinnertime as an invaluable opportunity to put electronics down for a spell. Parenting has much to do with setting boundaries, saying no, and teaching your children appropriate social behaviors. If your child is on the phone or ipad during dinner, they are in their own virtual world and not realty engaged with the family.
We are moving into a future with an even greater electronic wave. Smart phones are smarter than many humans, and as we continue to evolve and grow with technology, it will be more and more important for families to keep their boundaries strong in order to preserve the bonds and unity of family. The only way to do this is to stay engaged with your kids and your spouse, and keep sacred some of the family rituals such as mealtime.
1. As much as possible, plan family meals during the week. These don't have to always be at home; however, they should include your whole family.
2. Keep a plate or container handy where all electronics can be put just prior to dinner. Ask family members to “silence” their devices for the dinner period.
3. Conversation at the dinner table should be kept at a level where everyone can hear one another and you can also enjoy the food.
4. Make sure you remember you are parents at the table and not your child's friend. If a derogatory word or motion is made at the table, correct your child/spouse. The dinner table should remain family friendly.
5. Continue to show respect and manners with your child at the dinner table. One of a parent's most important jobs is socializing their child so that the child can feel confident in his ability to demonstrate manners and respect toward others.
We cannot go back in time, nor should we, but as we continue deeper into the digital age, there are some rituals we want to protect. Family dinners are one of those. A family is only as strong as its leaders. Electronics can never teach your child family values as well as you, the parent, can.
– Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. For more information, visit maryjorapini.com