Last night I gave a talk about “building a media ecology in your home” to parents of 3-9-year-olds. I had a number of wonderful conversations with parents afterward–but one in particular really made me think. First of all, I am happy to say, this conversation happened with a dad. At many parent talks I’ve offered, the audience has been about 80% moms, so I am always delighted to see a more even split, as I did at this talk. This father started out by thanking me for not making him feel like a “bad parent” in my talk. This is so important to me, I think judging other parents prevents us from building strong communities where we all watch out for everyone’s kids…
Anyway, this dad wanted to know about eating in front of the TV. Remembering how I had just asked parents not to judge other parents, I wanted to respond appropriately! Specifically, he wondered whether it would harm his children’s minds or their social skills if they ate some of their meals while watching a show? In their house, children are sometimes allowed to eat while watching TV as a treat, or at times when the adults want a little adult time over dinner. This is a hard question to answer definitively, as my goal is to help families do what works for them…But I do believe that ideally, family meals can be important for teaching kids social skills, hearing about their week, and for them to see us adults in our relationship.
Yet the desire to sit down with your partner for a quiet meal sometime before your kids leave for college is understandable… What I suggested was that he focus on having unplugged family meals all together at certain times. Maybe some meals that involve the siblings watching a show while parents eat and catch up would give this family the energy for some unplugged meals where they all sit down together. Another alternative is to feed kids first a sit-down meal that is not in front of a screen (but where you talk with them, and they sit for whatever time is developmentally reasonable) and then you can “release them” for a show or game while you eat. This used to be traditional in some families and is still the norm in families that have parents that get home from work too late for the childrens’ schedules.
Fans of “mindful eating” would probably prefer the two-shift approach to dinners, because it involves postponing media time until after a meal. Eating while you are distracted can be associated with obesity, etc. I think the most important thing to do is to create some unplugged ritual meal time that you stick to so kids can get used to it and look forward to it! It is far better to have an attainable goal than to throw up your hands.