I get it. I get why you want to use your phone at the table.
I haven’t eaten in peace since 2006. I get it.
The kids get home hungry. They grow increasingly hungry the entire time you are cooking. You know this because one is crying while everyone else complains. People are playing too rough and lurking by your elbow while you stir the vegetables on the stove. They’re crabby with hunger, and there’s a huge din.
You’ve also been hearing phone dings, but you haven’t had a chance to look. One of the texts is probably from the neighbor, whose kids are at your house, and you’ve been waiting to hear if Gina has posted the project you’re working on tonight after the kids go to bed.
You’re watching a pot that won’t boil, and finally you let yourself glance at the phone. One text is your sister. Do you have a pop-up tent she could borrow tomorrow? And one was the neighbor. You send her child home. Oops! The pot boiled over.
Before you can sit, you must get the children to clean their projects off the table, you must ask them to set the table, and then you must force them to actually set the table. Did I eat lunch today? you wonder. Work has been busy!
As you ladle food onto plates, the question arises. “What’s for dinner?” Your response prompts the youngest child to whine, “I don’t like that!” You ladle him up some food that he isn’t particularly going to eat. Suddenly nobody is hungry.
When you have gotten back up three times to collect all of the items needed, you look at your own plate. This is literally the first time you have sat down with no demands all day. “Could you get the ketchup?” the oldest asks. The dog is blocking her chair. Sigh. You get up again.
NOW it’s the first time you’ve sat down with no demands all day. Your brain is crying to just disengage. Did anybody like that hilarious political cartoon you posted earlier? It probably made your uncle angry.
When you push the tempting phone away, you hear a bing again. Your finger itches to reach over and see if it was Gina texting. Has she posted the documents? What’s taking so long?
The middle child starts telling you a story, a decidedly unfunny story involving a bunch of potty words. He’s laughing though, and clearly expects that you will enjoy the story too.
His sister interrupts his story to correct him. His friend didn’t actually do that. Yes he did, the first child asserts. Bickering ensues. The youngest slumps in his chair.
You want to just look at Facebook. For a minute.
But wait. Don’t do it. Your kids need you at the table.
Not just physically at the table, but really there. Research shows that family dinnertime conversation boosts children’s vocabulary even more than reading together, that families who eat together consume more fruits and vegetables. It shows their kids do better in school and are less likely to do drugs or participate in high-risk adolescent behaviors. This is less about the chicken they don’t like anyway and more about the daily ritual of reconnecting and sharing and teaching.
All of this is huge.
But also you just plain need to show them that you’re there, that you care, that they are more important than Facebook, your work, answering your sister right now. You’re showing them you care about that gross story because you care about them. You’re teaching them how to eat and talk politely—but you have to be paying attention to do that. You’re prioritizing, and they’ll notice, and they’ll notice even more if you don’t do it. You’re modeling relationships—do you want them to be that guy at the restaurant who is ignoring his date? You’re modeling restraint.
It’s OK to check out, eventually and temporarily. It’s OK to say you need a moment once in a while. But please: give them dinnertime. Maybe even share your own childhood gross story to make them laugh, to share a laugh as a family, to reconnect.
Laura Garwood is a freelance writer and editor living in Sacramento, California. Being a bit of an overachiever, after getting her master’s degree she started her own business and began her large collection of children and pets. She pens the humor/parenting blog Short-Winded Blog, credited with making a Slate.com writer feel terrified of becoming a parent. She has written articles and essays for local and national publications, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, and appeared in the Listen to Your Mother show. Visit her at laurameehan.com or shortwinded.net.