PAREN(T)HESIS — Device Free Dinner

September 5, 2018

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

During my childhood in the mid-1970s through 1990s, my dad was a patrolman with the New Berlin Police Department. When he was assigned to work in the section of the city that included our neighborhood, he would occasionally stop home for lunch. We were accustomed to seeing him in uniform, of course, but it was always a bit strange to hear the police work being broadcast over the radio on his hip. Typically we would hear the dispatcher calling out to officers followed by their responses. 

Radio communication relied on a lot of shorthand abbreviations. Hearing the codes flow back and forth was a glimpse into a protocol that Dad knew fluently but that my sister and I couldn’t comprehend. During these quick lunches of leftovers or a homemade sandwich, he would turn down the volume while continuing to monitor the communications. Occasionally he would abruptly grab the radio off his hip, raise it to his mouth and make a few statements to the dispatcher, typically ending in the one radio phrase I knew, 10-4. Then he would walk out to his squad car and drive away. Even as a young child, my sister and I understood that Dad was not ignoring us in favor of an electronic device and recognized it was his duty to pay attention to his radio, even during a lunch break.

At the end of the day, the four of us usually gathered as a family for dinner. Sometimes sports practice got in the way but we sat together at the table most nights. Dad was off duty by then. Email was not yet prevalent and office workers like my mom commonly left their work behind. The parent who cooked often watched the evening news while preparing the meal, but we turned off the TV while we ate.

Today the invasion of technology into family life is one of the biggest contemporary parenting issues. Modern parents and other caregivers can easily bemoan that we have no model from our own childhood to rely on and yet our parents chose whether or not to prioritize gathering together to eat and whether TV was a part of meals. Going back further, some of the early inhabitants of the house my family and I now live in, likely chose whether or not to have the radio blaring while they ate together.

Family members who dine together with screen-free meals are important to a child’s well being.

The Family Dinner Project, housed at Harvard University, points out, “Over the past 15 years, research has shown what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.”

The site explains that families have many meal opportunities beginning with breakfast. Making breakfast the family meal may work better for some families with a parent who works second shift or with kids who have lots of after-school activities, providng an alternative if the family dinner isn’t feasible. Families could also gather for a dessert of fruit before bedtime if other opportunities to eat together do not fit their schedule. The project also points out that elaborate cooking is not an imperative and that “family dinner” can be sandwiches.

The nonprofit Common Sense Media provides tips for how to get started and what to talk about when people aren’t looking at their phones or other devices that you can follow via #DeviceFreeDinner. Our family has no “secret sauce” for great conversations and sometimes we are a bit quiet. We talk about what happened in our day, news that’s fit for a child’s ears, and plenty of nonsense and inside jokes.

A wide spectrum of professions have on-call employees and those who have to stay connected beyond normal work hours. For them, like my dad, being fully present is not always possible. Families are better off whenever parents can be fully present without a screen at meals and influence their kids to do the same.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions:

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