Blog: My Kids Can’t Eat Out Without Being Plugged In!

Susan Stiffelman

A few years ago, I started giving my kids phones when we go out to dinner so my husband and I could have a conversation and enjoy a meal without interruption. But now they expect it — and it’s starting to feel depressing to me that we can’t enjoy a peaceful meal together without screens. How do I stop something after allowing it for so long?

I’m told that the first restaurant in the world was opened in Paris in 1765. One dish was served — sheep’s feet simmered in white sauce. My guess is that this was the beginning of parents looking for ways to manage their children’s fidgety behavior when they decided to indulge in the luxury of eating out.

As cell phones and iPads became more commonplace, the problem seemed to be solved. Parents got to enjoy the relaxation of a good meal that someone else prepared (and cleaned up!) without refereeing kids’ squabbles. And children became almost instantly quiet and well-behaved.

But, as you pointed out, children quickly become dependent on digital babysitters, increasingly unable to get along with siblings or engage in civilized conversation.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Get clear about what you want. Perhaps you’re willing to let your kids use your phones for 10 minutes before the food arrives if they engage cheerfully with the family for the rest of the meal. Or you may decide that it’s fine for the kids to have the phone while you and your husband debrief your day, provided they willingly surrender it once those few minutes are up. Then again, you may believe that things have gotten out of hand, and that it’s best to go cold turkey, re-establishing digital-free dinners. Before you implement a new plan, get clear about what you want so you can move to the next step with an aura of confidence and certainty.

2. Announce what you expect. “Daddy and I have decided that dinners aren’t much fun when you guys are only happy if you’re using our phones. Tonight, we’re going to eat out and…” here, you’ll describe what you decided in Step 1.

Let your children know that your decision is not negotiable, and that if they don’t think they can join you as pleasant dinner companions, they can stay home with grandma or a babysitter (without access to computers or TV). If they whine, complain or fight at the restaurant, they will have to come home, and the next time you head out for dinner, they will stay home with a sitter.

3. Offload disappointment. Expect your kids to be upset. It’s understandable that limiting their access to something they enjoy is going to cause them to feel powerless and angry. Rather than launching into a lecture about the importance of family time or the evils of digital devices, allow them to vent their frustration.

“We know you’re mad. Sitting at the table with ‘nothing to do’ can be boring, especially when Daddy has really fun games on his phone. We understand.”

4. Set them up for success. It is entirely unfair to expect perfect behavior from a 5-year old if you don’t eat till 8:00 p.m., or to insist that a hungry 12-year-old wait an hour for food when she’s hungry. Don’t demand behavior of your children that they are not capable of producing.

5. Make dinner interesting. You and your husband may want to settle in for some grown-up conversation, but if you want your children to do well without distractions, you will have to be compromise your needs with theirs. Bring an age-appropriate riddle to the table for the family to solve together. Or create a meal time ritual where each person shares the most unexpected thing they saw that day. By associating the dinner table with an experience your children look forward to, they will be much better able to let go of their digital “friends.”

6. Take two cars. If, after hearing the new terms for use of your phones at restaurants, your children choose to join you for dinner at a restaurant, be prepared to stand behind what you decided. This may require that one parent leave early, if your children are not able to behave appropriately. Make sure that you have transportation arranged to make that possible.

7. Follow through. As unpleasant as it may be to walk out mid-dinner, if you want your children to take you seriously, you will have to leave the restaurant if their whining or fighting escalates. The next time you go out to eat — and it is best if that is sooner than later, make arrangements for your child to stay home with a sitter. Invite him to join you the next time, if he feels he will be able to behave appropriately.

While it’s great to include children in family meals, make sure you institute a regular date night so you are getting that all important, kid-free grown up time. Bon appetit!