Tonight was an interesting evening since my better half and I had dinner at the restaurant at which both Eldest and Middle work. The fact that they literally work side by side as head hostess and host is fascinating enough as she will be training him, but when they were out of sight doing their jobs, I took the opportunity to watch the other diners; I am a natural observer spawned by spending childhood vacation evenings seated on boardwalk benches because my folks wouldn’t pay for ride tickets. But what grabbed my attention was visual proof of the cellphone spread discussed in multiple newspaper and magazine articles.
Across the way from our outside table was a large group of almost a dozen people, mixed between girls in their mid-teens and middle-aged men. I’m 99.999% certain that they were father/daughter combinations but knowing that there’s a large swingers group that meets for a monthly social hour at this restaurant – and boy howdy, ain’t that an educational conversation with the kids – I’ll hold the .001% in reserve. What was notable however was the prevalence of smartphones and cellphones in active use amongst the group and not just among the girls. The girls would share their smartphones back and forth, taking selfies and ostensibly trolling the web as they waited. But I was surprised to see multiple adults also pull their devices to answer and/or make calls, or likewise swipe their screens. It’s not uncommon for large groups seated in restaurants to break into smaller conversational nodes because the ambient noise makes it difficult for one end of the table to hear the other, but this scene was played out amongst other tables which had far fewer diners. It was honestly depressing to see people turn away from one another to answer texts or swipe screens to follow whatever on the available wi-fi network.
So how does affect the family and kids? There have certainly been moments in our household when any one of us – and even Youngest now has a basic phone – has reached into a pocket to glance at something incoming; it happened to me yesterday in a meeting. But that’s a function of the press of other responsibilities and commitments and even teens with jobs and activities have them. But pulling out the phone to glance and then replacing it isn’t the same thing as the wholesale process of ignoring your table companions, a tacit insult if ever there was one. We’ve been clear since kids’ cell phones were first introduced into the house that they had no place at the family dinner table and we’ve tried to hold the line on that, even if one of them still will periodically pull it out to respond quickly to something that’s incoming. It’s an ongoing and chronic occurrence but at least it’s not a wholesale conversation and when a comment is made about it, there’s no rancorous response. I know of families who require that all cell phones be removed before dinner in order to maintain balance and assure that there’s an opportunity to engage in even a short period of uninterrupted conversation, free of distraction. The flip side to this is that you have to be willing to purposefully put away your own device so that you’re abiding by the rule as well. There have been moments in my parenting experience when I’ve responded to but you don’t follow that rule with the I’m your father, I don’t always have to response but it seems to me that this is one of those rules that should be universally respected. The sole exceptions in the household are my Better Half, who is a physician and subject to any number of situations requiring immediate attention and the common awareness of everyone that there’s an illness in a member of the extended family, particularly the elderly relatives. If those aren’t operative however, then the usual reminder is to put the devices away.
There’s value in upholding the rules about cellphones here. There’s tremendous value in knowing how to hold and maintain a conversation with another person as well as like value in being able to follow a thought process without distraction. The challenges facing our country are numerous, deep and varied and if the kids aren’t capable of thinking with clarity, depth and focus, then the situations will grow insoluble, at least in a manner that’s satisfactory to a democracy with a functioning constitution.