Dad Reflects: Should Kids Have Smartphones at the Dinner Table?
I was recently inspired by a conversation I was having. The question was basically this: Is it bad parenting to let your kids play with smartphones to occupy them when they are bored and potentially disruptive? Specifically they were interested in places like restaurants. Apparently they had been hearing criticism about this practice, from grandparents perhaps, and they wanted to know what other people thought.
For some reason I have a lot of thoughts about this. As I've mentioned before, I am a fan of movies and video games, a big fan, and there are many that I want to share with my kids. In fact, I wrote an entire article about the movies I want to share with my kids. On the flip side, I also do not own a cellphone, mostly because I just don't want my kids to remember me that way - looking at a phone when they were trying to talk to me. It's still kind of uncharted territory, but I think it's damaging to grow up seeing that all the time, and I don't want to be that role model.
But back to the question. Does that mean you are a bad parent if you give your kid a smartphone to entertain them? I would never say that. I believe it all depends on the following: intention. If the intention is to use a smartphone as a babysitter because you are afraid that your child cannot handle sitting still and will embarrass you in public - that does not sound like the right kind of intention. Quite frankly it sounds selfish, and you'd have to be pretty honest with yourself to identify this. If this is standard practice in all social or potentially boring situations, it seems like the type of thing that would be detrimental to the child's social skills at the very least and perhaps even to their ability to focus in general.
“I think you simply have to ask yourself where your intentions and your priorities are coming from when it comes to providing screens in public.”
However, your intention may be simply to provide entertainment in legitimately boring situations. What is a legitimately boring situation, you say? I would define it this way: settings which are legitimately non-social for all humans, where you don't have many choices, and where even you, as an adult, would pull out a book to read or a game to play. I'm talking about places like long airplane rides. In my mind, there is a big difference between kids watching a movie on a tablet on an airplane and kids watching a movie on a tablet at Olive Garden. It all boils down to intention, and to priorities.
“I think it's a real shame to see families at restaurants with 4 noses in 4 phones.”
As the parent, in order to answer the original question, I think you simply have to ask yourself where your intentions and your priorities are coming from when it comes to providing screens in public. You have to ask yourself if you are consistently providing a crutch for your child to simply check out in legitimate social situations. Boredom is not always bad. It can provide a chance for reflection - something kids don't have too much time for with constant stimulation.
Like I've said before, like most things, sharing the movies and the video games together with your kids is my biggest preference, and everything else in moderation. There are legitimately awesome games for kids that promote creativity and focus as well. The stuff kids can build on Minecraft is truly amazing and I dig it and encourage it. But we have a time limit on TV and video games to help promote that moderation, and to help make sure we get some playing with sticks time and reading books time too.
On another note completely, no matter how boring a kid might think it is, I still think dinnertime is a very important ritual. I think it's a special opportunity to sit down together and talk and enjoy each other's company. I think it's a real shame to see families at restaurants with 4 noses in 4 phones. But that's their ritual I guess. All I can say is that I sincerely hope the pendulum swings back the other direction one day and society as a whole decides to label such behavior as taboo.
How do you handle screen time with your kids? Do you have different rules depending on where you are? Is dinnertime still sacred? Let us know in the comments below.