The Opportunities of Dinner Together–Without Screens

While we were out to dinner recently, we saw a couple sit with their two kids, maybe 10 and 12 years old and each child pulled out a device and headphones and put them on. What kind of message does that send about family time and talking together?

I can talk a good game about how much screen time kids should have, but I know our kids play with iTouches, computers and watch TV–more than they should (whatever that means). Screens are a part of our lives and I’m not trying to rid our life of them. But it got me thinking about when they are appropriate.

While talking with Gem about it in the car, I realized what worries me. In the last week, Gem and the kids and I had some fascinating discussions at the breakfast/dinner table. We had a great talk about making sure they let us know about any pain they feel (our daughter had an appendectomy last month). We talked about what to do when someone is sitting Shiva (the wife of someone in my office recently died). In fact, late last Spring, we had a great discussion about school which led us to send them to a different school this year because they were so unhappy at the last one.

The way I think about it is that screens aren’t bad. But screens keep us from interacting with each other. Anytime we watch dinner in front of the TV, we lose the chance at a conversation. Anytime, someone uses their phone or device at the table, they aren’t present with the family. Certainly once in awhile, having dinner in front of a good movie, cuddled on the couch, is lovely.

But I think about what eating together means to our family and what it would mean if we didn’t share that time together. When we sit down at the table we don’t plan the discussion, but we know it is a chance for anyone in our family to share what has been going on with them–good or bad. I can talk about a big project at work. Gem can tell us about a workshop she did that day. The kids can tell us something that happened during their day. But the best part always is the reactions and the questions that come out up and seeing where the conversation goes. Some nights it is just an interesting conversation. And some nights, we find ourselves with the chance to remind our children of something very important based on the new direction of our conversation. Sometimes it is sex or drugs or drinking. Sometimes it is what is a good friend or how to deal with problems. Sometimes it is about my past and how different things are for me now. It is never what we expected, but always of value.

A screen prevents all of this from happening. I like to think that as our kids get older, things might happen to them during the day and they might think, Oh, I can talk about this at dinner. If it works out like that, both Gem and I would be tremendously excited.

But even right now, what happens at dinner is always better than what happens on any screen.

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