I’m just going to come out and say it: my partner and I allow tablets at the dinner table. We allow them at lunch too. And if I am being completely honest, there have been mornings when I served cartoons with my kids’ cereal because the night before was a disaster, and I could barely function. Or the day started way too early and my kids are a mess before I have found the strength to make my first cup of coffee.
But before you get on your high horse and tell me what a terrible parent I am, or how sorry you feel for my kids, allow me to explain.
I don’t think tablets (or screen time) should be part of every meal all day, every day. But with a 7-year-old and twin 5-year-olds and two parents who work full time, honestly, some days are just about survival. As a friend said, tablets are just one “coping mechanism” in the bag of tricks we carry around as parents. Allowing screen time during a meal once in a while helps all of us survive.
I was feeling a little guilty, though, for not being one of those parents who denies distraction at mealtime, for not powering through it even when I’m completely exhausted. I went to social media to ask friends to tell me their policy on tablets and screen time during meals. Perhaps I was looking for validation. Perhaps someone would tell me affirming stories of letting their kids eat while watching TV that would help me to not die a little inside on the really horrible days with my kids.
Most of the people who commented said they are firm about no screens at the table or while eating. Dinner time especially, they said, is the one time of day when everyone is in the same spot for more than 30 seconds. It is when families can connect, share stories from their day, or have spontaneous conversations that wouldn’t otherwise happen if everyone was plugged in. Some people even said having a book at the dinner table intruded too much on family time. Are magazines and L.L. Bean catalogs considered “books?” Because I regularly flip through those between reminding my kid 75 times to close her mouth while chewing her food.
Many of these same people made exceptions or broke their own rule though. Eating at a restaurant was a big enough feat for parents to cave. Whether out of fear of their kids being too loud for other patrons or because kids can’t deal with the wait time, parents often passed a tablet or phone to the kids while dining out.
Depending on the kid’s age, the waiting alone can often ruin your restaurant experience. Yes, coloring sheets, small toys, and sticker sheets can help. But usually the only things that keep my kids quiet for more than a hot second is a mouth full of snacks or a screen. And if we are somewhere to eat, I don’t want them filling up on crackers before I pay way too much for boxed macaroni and cheese. Screens it is.
There is a restaurant near our family that has a TV at every table. It’s fucking glorious. We don’t go often, but every once in a while my partner and I just can’t deal with life and need a meal that I didn’t cook and that she doesn’t have to clean up. We go, order our food, and let the kids zone out to Disney Junior. She and I get to touch base about things like home repairs and soccer schedules, the kids are quiet and happy and still manage to shovel food into their mouths, and I get to eat a hot and delicious meal I didn’t prepare. I get every bit of my money’s worth and I don’t care if a screen was involved to achieve this.
What I found interesting during my non-scientific and barely official study was that almost everyone said family movie night often involved dinner in front of the television. I get that everyone is experiencing the same thing while eating and watching a movie, but it’s still screen time during a meal. It’s still bending rules that people say they cling to. And that’s okay. The point is, we all bend the rules sometimes.
I just hope those rule-breaking parents don’t get caught saying “I never” or “I can’t believe they allow that” when judging other parents with kids using tablets during meals. Some parents with kids who are sensory sensitive or have special needs rely on screens to get through dinner or a night out. You don’t know people’s reasons, nor do you have the right to know. You don’t have the right to pass judgment either.
And for the parents who admitted that TV and tablets are staples at dinner, please let go of any apologies or need to explain your choices. You don’t have to justify your right to parent the way you want and need to parent your children.
Parenting is hard enough without judgment. None of us need to be measured by the length of time our kids spend on their tablets while they eat, because sometimes we are just trying to survive any given moment.
We are all doing the best we can to raise happy and healthy kids who are resilient enough to undo the damage we will do as parents because none of us really know what the fuck we are doing.
I don’t think occasional screen time at dinner is going to undo any of our hard work.