I realized that I was about to miss out on a great opportunity to combine one of my long-standing hobby horses with one of my new ones. How can I let writing about the intersection of family meals and technology slip by?
As you know, our family has been having a sort of internet fast. (Well, at least for the family computer. J. and M. are still using theirs during the day. That whole work-thing and all.) And it's been relaxing and pleasant and helping me to get up in the mornings. I don't plan on going back anytime soon. I also mentioned that our already comparatively limited use of technology has made the transition much easier. No computer use on Sundays has been a rather recent rule, but a very long-standing rule has been related to our use of any technology during dinner.
And when I say 'use' I really mean disuse. When we eat dinner together, and that would be every night, we do not invite technology to join us. Early on, that meant no television and no getting up to answer the phone. (That's why we [still] have an answering machine.) Dinner was the time we set aside to be with each other, not an electrical device nor someone who wasn't in front of us.
We humans are pretty distractable. And no matter what anyone says, our brains are not really capable of multi-tasking. Brain science backs it up. When people say they are good at multi-tasking they really are just better at changing their focus faster, they are not thinking about two things at once. Why is this important? Because if one of the purposes to having dinner together is to spend time with the other people at the table, it is actually impossible to pay attention to both the person across from you and the electronic device in your hand or on the wall. Someone or thing will be short-changed, and that's very often the live person and not the device.
I am particularly aware of this when on the very rare occasions we are at a restaurant and that restaurant has TV's scattered about, (I really hate this, by the way.) My family tries to have our usual dinner table conversation, but even without being aware of it, I can watch people at different times be lured away by what they see on the screen, myself included. Then you'll watch them realize they were watching the screen and bring themselves back to the conversation only to have it happen again a few minutes later. They are just distracting... even without the sound.
But dealing with a TV and a land-line phone seems easy when compared to the host of items today that want to join you at the dinner table. Phones are the worst. Because it is much more than people calling you, it is the incessant need to 'keep up' with the outside world. It is so easy to fall into the trap that reading the latest text from a friend is more important and more immediate than the people in front of you. That is why it is doubly important to have space where you do not check your phone (or whatever it is that you constantly check) and go back to living your life again without the interface of a screen. Screens are addictive whether people like to hear that or not and it is good to remove yourself from them on a regular basis.
Now if adults have difficulty with this, think how much more difficult it is for our children whose brains are still developing. It is vitally important that we model for them appropriate technology use. It is important that we help set parameters that will instill good habits, but we cannot do this if we are misusing it ourselves.
Dinner is the perfect time to begin. Not only is it a limited amount of time (which is important especially if the idea of not checking texts and fb statuses makes you a bit twitchy), but it is doing a couple of really good things. First it forces you to focus on the people before you, without distractions. (Remember you cannot multi-task even if you would really, really like to.) Without distractions, you will be able to communicate with these people better. You can remember what it is like to have a real conversation. You can model having a real conversation for your children. Second, but putting the people first and the technology a long second, you communicate love and importance. You want your spouse and children to feel as though you love them and think they are important, right? Well, put down the phone and turn off the TV and let your actions communicate that.
We don't allow our older children with phones to use them at the table, either. Why allow them to develop bad habits? Why give them an easy out from communicating with their parents and family because they're so involved with the little virtual world in their phone that they don't have to do the hard work of being an involved part of the family? Why create habits that will not benefit their future relationships?
So put the phones away... in another room in necessary. Close the computer. Turn on the answering machine. Turn off the TV. Look the people sitting across from you at the table and actually talk with them. And laugh. And enjoy each other while they are here in front of you.