Igor Explains: Family Dinners and the IPad

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Igor Explains: Family Dinners and the IPad

My wife Vera and I went to our favorite little diner for supper. Over breadsticks, she chattered about the rosebushes in her garden, and I began to tune her out — 40 years of marriage will do that to you. But looking around, I noticed families seated at tables, crammed into booths, all staring down, tapping on their phones and iPads instead of talking to each other.

“Back in my day, family dinners were sacred,” I grumbled. “You sat there and you ate your peas and you asked each other how their day was. None of this gadgetry business.”

Vera asked if my dyspepsia was acting up.

People want to paint a rosy picture of this new-fangled gadget-happy family scenario, like in that commercial by the Google, where Dad impresses his son by how quickly he can look up information. But all I see is a headache — fights, agony and complicated breakups — it’s warping our minds and relationships.

And did you hear about that children’s book with that little girl who feels her family pays more attention to their phones more than to each other?

Technology is supposed to make connecting with others easier, but it just isn’t happening. Sure, finding and friending one another is easier, but getting along with each other? Still tough as ever. And these texts and the Twitters and the Facebook throw a wrench in the process.

To me, being socially successful starts with the home and family — with dinners, when we all sit down from our busy days and talk, reconnect and all that fuzzy-wuzzy stuff. And it turns out, there are all sorts of benefits. The more you sit down as a family, according to some smart folks over at McGill University, the better-adjusted your teens will become.

That reminds me of another study that found that young’uns who sit their butts down at family dinners are more likely to get better grades and less likely to do drugs. And they have better vocabularies, too… probably because they say “like” and “dude” less by talking to grown-ups.

And according to more smart folks at Brigham Young University, family time is good for the parents too, helping to relieve stress after a hard day’s work. There’s even a whole movement to bring back the family dinner. I don’t know why it takes a bunch of PhDs to figure this out — seems like common sense to me.

That’s the thing — gadgets are invading our dinner tables, to the point where kids have to invent these “phone stacking” games so we don’t check them through the meal.


And it’s not just kids: parents don’t seem to mind, either. Some Northwesterners found that nearly four-in-five parents aren’t worried about their kids’ tech use. Those parents, the study says, grew up with technology as an important part of their lives, so they’re actually the driving force behind their gadget-happy children.

I have to admit, I get my knickers in a knot when I see a family at dinner staring down at their phones. I was on my soapbox about it at poker the other night, when one of the young bucks we play with just laughed at me.

“Why does this matter to you?” he said, “It’s not like you say very much at dinner, anyway.”

That’s not true. Is it? I asked Vera that night while we were watching “Wheel of Fortune.” She just patted my hand and said, “Don’t worry, honey — I didn’t marry you for your scintillating conversation.”

What does being “together” mean, anyway? This brouhaha about the dinners and the gadgets assumes a family has to look a certain way: like a sitcom, I suppose, where the family sits and talks in cheerful voices, never arguing or annoying each other.

The idea of togetherness means something different to everyone. Take Vera. She loves to go to our favorite little diner and talk her head off about her rosebushes. Me? I’m just happy when we watching Pat Sajak on the sofa — she with her knitting and me with the remote control.

This evolutionary psychologist lady, Helen Fisher, who built her career on looking at the differences between men and women, wrote in O Magazine that women like face-to-face and talk time to feel close, while men see playing or working together as the best way to bond. Sounds like me and Vera, to a T.

I suppose if men and women have different ideas of bonding, maybe families should have different ways of being together, too.

The idea of “family time” wasn’t always what it is today. Before the Victorian era, family time was during work, church or community events — you build a home or sometimes play together. You certainly didn’t run off to soccer practice, after-school jobs or stay late at the office.

But as we began to work more and spend less time at home, the idea of family time — where parents set aside specific times during the day and created special activities to do together, away from the hustle and bustle of life — came around. It’s a uniquely American notion, as I found out. In countries like Italy, researchers say, family “togetherness” is more spontaneous, and you bond while you do other things — like chat at a block party, a corner at a wedding reception or on the trolley to school or work. They don’t worry so much about their family time because it’s a part of their lives.


I started to think that maybe that idea of togetherness is changing too, moving from that face-to-face talk that Vera likes so much to a more side-to-side version that I prefer. If that’s the case, maybe sitting on the sofa with an iPad isn’t such a bad thing. And maybe the idea of family dinners is overrated.

Take this Bruce Feiler fellow, who wrote “The Secrets to Happy Families,” for example. He told NPR that the amount of real talk we have at dinner only amounts to about 10 minutes — the rest of the time is just yapping about keeping the elbows off the table. That means if you have a lot to juggle and don’t have time for dinner together, you can do as the Italians do, and easily cram in those 10 minutes when everyone is eating breakfast, commuting or doing chores.

What’s more important, that Feiler guy thinks, is how and what we talk about. Not just day-to-day stuff or even what happened on the TV shows people love to watch these days. Researchers at Emory University discovered that telling real stories about the family — where the grandparents grew up, what high school was like for you and how you fell in love — were what really brought families together, giving kids higher self-esteem and confidence, as well.

Those are the stories about your good and bad moments and how you got through them are the tools that form tight bonds between generations. Not just sitting at dinner, asking how their day at school went. And I reckon it works the other way around — kids need to share their stories without being prodded at or jumped on. Maybe that comes when everyone puts down their gadgets. Maybe it’s using the YouTubes as a jumping off point to share experiences. Maybe I really should listen to Vera and ask her about her gardening.

I don’t know. But it makes me feel better when I go on about my days in the war. I’m not grumpy, I’m not boring — I’m just bonding, I’ll say.

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Igor Explains

Igor Dagnabitz, our resident grumpy old man, makes his cantankerous way through a confounded world of gadgets, Internets and the Twitter. Armed with begrudging curiosity, he explores the ways technology changes his world. But he doesn’t like it one bit.
Igor Explains: Family Dinners and the IPad

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