Imagine a crowded restaurant. Glasses clink. Conversations buzz. You’re ushered to your seat, take a nonchalant glance around, and then, after an inevitable subtle double take, there he is: the astronaut at the next table.
I’m not talking about a real astronaut, of course, but of a digital traveler: one of those small — or, often, not so small — children constantly plugged in and tuned out, floating somewhere in cyberspace.
While it sounds otherworldly, the “astronaut at dinner” is becoming increasingly common. In fact, I sat next to one at a restaurant on Monday night. He was maybe ten or eleven. His parents chatted; meanwhile, he was oblivious, glazed eyes glued to an iPad. His impressive headset looked like it could be used to navigate a mission to Mars, but for now, it kept him firmly planted, motionless as the Sphinx in the leather-lined booth.
This is not an exaggeration: Over the span of the next hour, a wild-eyed, snorting buffalo herd could have charged out of the kitchen, followed by the entire cheery-faced UCLA marching band, followed by the original cast of Hamilton doing self-important backflips, and our resident child astronaut would have neither noticed nor batted an eye.
Nothing that exciting was happening, of course — just family dinner, which is quietly one of the more important regularly scheduled learning opportunities for a child. Dinner is where kids learn the arts of patience, self-control, manners, and conversation — things that cannot be learned while staring at a screen.
This all leads up to my opinion, which is wild and controversial and might make many people slightly huffy and maybe even hopping mad: With a very small list of exceptions, your child should not have an iPad or an iPhone or an iAnything at dinner.
Here’s a fun and somewhat alarming test: Go to a restaurant with kids who can make eye contact, order for themselves, and say please and thank you, and witness the gushing compliments you’ll get from astounded waiters and waitresses. These basic skills should not be considered an amazing and unusual feat, but today, they certainly seem to be.
With a very small list of exceptions, your child should not have an iPad or an iPhone or an iAnything at dinner.
There’s a reason Bill Gates banned screens for his family at dinner time. Apple guru Steve Jobs also ran a low-tech home. “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen,” biographer Walter Isaacson reported, “discussing books and history and a variety of things. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer.”
Nick Bilton, who covered the topic for the New York Times, noted a similar trend: “I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends,” he wrote. “These tech CEOs seem to know something we don’t.”
But if we’re honest, maybe this isn’t just about knowledge, is it? Here’s a fact: Pulling off a civilized dinner with a three-year-old — no screen, no headphones, no movie-as-a-muffler; just you and your child and whatever wits you have left about you — can be hard work. Everyone knows that. It’s the reason why so many exhausted parents outsource the job to a screen.
But then, good parenting is often hard. With small children, family dinners needn’t be every night, nor dinners out an austere torture chamber: Crayons encourage engagement and interaction, as do small, simple toys like animals or cars. When it comes to toddlers, you may not be discussing “books and history and a variety of things” — if you’re really lucky, you might get to discuss velociraptors or Bigfoot — but you’ll be planting the seeds for a future where you can.
As screen-free realms become increasingly rare, however, expect the wackiness to grow. “My kid wishes I were dead so he could get more time on the tablet—and I don’t blame him,” blared a recent headline at Salon. (No, it was not a joke.) You also might be surprised/unsurprised/amused/alarmed to learn that the author’s solution to her child’s literally wishing death upon her so he could use her iPad — and the related problem of her kids’ turning “into screaming, stomach-clutching, tear-soaked, rehabbing drug addicts whenever we take the thing out of their sticky little hands” is . . . more screen time! Whee!
Alas, digital addiction is everywhere. In cities such as Austin, Texas, well-off public-school districts shove iPads into the hands of kindergarteners; in Chicago’s public-school system, Google representatives are helpfully questioning why anyone should learn basic math and geometry. Jonathan Rochelle, who directs Google’s education-apps group — which, according to the Chicago Tribune, has basically taken over the city’s public schools — had this to say about the quadratic equation: “I don’t know why they are learning it. And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”
Yikes. When it comes down to it, really, why think at all? This is the technological “zone out” philosophy, perfectly distilled. It’s a failure to understand that the learning process — with its problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity — is just as important as the end goal. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, restaurant-goers?
Here’s the good news: The counterculture begins at dinner.