It used to be that going out to eat meant setting aside some special family time. Relieved of the responsibilities of cooking and serving, parents could engage with their children in a focused way, catching up on what was going on in their lives without the phone ringing or favorite TV shows competing for attention. Having a meal at a restaurant almost always ensured that the family would have some genuine bonding time and maybe a few laughs -- nourishing not only children's bellies, but their minds and hearts, too.
Not anymore. According to the Wall Street Journal, restaurants like Applebee's and Chili's are now installing screens at their dining tables to make ordering and paying easier, and to give children something to do.
In the Journal's piece, beneath a photo of a child playing video games while her mother studies the French fries, Dad is quoted saying the screens are one of the reasons the family of five goes to Chili's. Elsewhere, another woman gushes that grown-ups "get a couple of minutes to talk without them saying 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,'" noting, "the only difficulty is the kids fighting over it."
Egads! Have we so lost the capacity to engage with our children that we can't come up with enough kid-friendly interactions to fill the empty space until our food is served? I asked Laurie David, author of "The Family Dinner," to share her thoughts. "Screens at the table make you eat more, talk less and disconnect from each other. You might all be sitting at the same table but you are miles apart."
Some parents are realizing that the intrusion of screens at the table is going too far. One mother quoted by the Journal says she turns the screen away from her 11-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter. "We want to engage her in a conversation," she says.
"I don't see the point of having screens at the table," says William Powers, author of "Hamlet's BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age." "Think about all the cool sights, sounds and smells of a meal. And at the same time, you're having a conversation with people you love. What could be better than that? A screen takes you away from the action and makes the whole experience less interesting."
I know that at the end of a long day, it's nice for the grown-ups at the table to be able to have their own conversation while the kids are distracted. I understand that parenting is exhausting, and sometimes we just want a break from, "When is my food coming?" "I'm hungry!!!" "HE TOUCHED MY FORK!"
I get it; parents are often desperate for the chance to have an uninterrupted conversation.
But I also know that the constant presence of screens in our daily life is making it increasingly difficult to maintain the kind of parental closeness children need to effectively manage the ups and downs of growing up. The majority of the interactions we have with our kids center around the activities of the day, whether it's getting them to do their homework, dress for school or head off to bed. The dinner table is one of the last remaining places where tasks and chores are set aside in favor of simply enjoying family time.
I hope we can keep it that way.