To the couple seated beside me at that bistro last week:
I nearly stopped to talk to you as I left the restaurant but couldn’t figure out how to say what I wanted to say without sermonizing and didn’t want to address you in front of your beautiful young children. They were about 5 and 7, maybe? Anyway, I couldn’t help notice you from the moment you were seated at the table to my left.
Or rather, from the instant you handed each of your children an iPad.
You and your partner chatted to each other the whole meal, only interrupting your children now and again to remind them to use their napkins. The children swiped and tapped without pause, ordering their meals without looking up at the server. When their food arrived, they simply reached across their devices for chicken tenders or fries.
Hey, I’ve been in your shoes. Finding adult-time together is challenging, sitters are pricey and surely sometimes no one feels like cooking. I get it. But my children are 24, 20 and 10, meaning that I raised two before the digital age and am raising the third amidst it. So, I’m claiming the moral high ground on dealing with children both prior to and during the siren call of the iPad.
A device-free dinner will take more effort on your part. You’ll have to work harder both to keep tabs on the children’s behavior and in engaging them. And the meal will not give you, as a couple, a moment over a glass of wine to catch up. Yet I urge you to give it a whirl. Actually, to give it a lifetime of whirls. In fact, I’ll give you five concrete reasons for leaving the devices at home:
Your children want your attention. Picture your child on a playground. How many times does he yell, “Mom, look at me”? Or does she shout, “Dad, watch this”? You are their moon and their stars. Sure, they’ll accept the distraction of an iPad. But you matter more to them than does beating that game.
You’re going to lose their attention. In just a short few years, they’re going to turn their attention away from you and toward their peer group. They will be moody, churlish and otherwise make you wonder whether you ever really did have a nice night at a restaurant together.
Hopefully, you did. In fact, make as many joint deposits as you can into the Bank of Goodwill. They may not keep you from ending up emotionally overdrawn but they’ll help.
You’re failing to teach the art of conversation. Conversations with children aren’t necessarily compelling and sometimes your “conversation” will be yet another round of I Spy or 20 Questions. But the point is to cultivate the give-and-take, to teach listening and sharing. If you collectively keep at it, compelling conversation will one day follow.
You’re setting terrible examples. Here’s the part where the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s old “Cat’s in the Cradle” song should start weaving through your thoughts. If you encourage your children to tune you out now, don’t expect them to change that tune through their teen years or even in adulthood. Worse, you’re parenting by example. Hard to see yourself as a grandparent, right? Harder still to imagine your taking the next generation out for ice cream and having them pop in their ear buds.
It’s annoying to patrons. Hey, it’s my night out, too. I don’t want your children’s electronic bleeps and bloops as my soundtrack.
Well, guess I didn’t manage to say this to you without sermonizing. But give the device-free dinner a try, will you? Might take a little getting used to but I’ll bet that both you and your children will be mighty glad you made the switch (off). Parenting days are long, but in the end, the years are short.
Can I get an amen?
This piece first appeared in Mom.Me, June 16, 2017