I recently returned from visiting my older daughter, who works in Dallas. After a lovely day visiting some old friends, her office complex and the JFK museum, we headed out to dinner. Since we were treating, my daughter picked a highly regarded restaurant known for its casual atmosphere and fabulous food. We felt she had made a great choice from the minute we walked in. The waiter was in top form and the menu had plenty of options for the meat and veggie lovers among us. As is our family rule, phone ringers were turned off and devices were stored, after my daughter sent a quick to text her boyfriend that she would be out of commission for the next couple of hours. About 15 minutes after sitting down, she said “Mom, the family at the next table hasn’t spoken to each other AT ALL since we walked in.” That didn’t sound like it could be right, but now I was curious so I tried to subtly sneak a peek at what was happening “next door” — and she wasn’t exaggerating. Mom and dad had their faces buried in their phones as did their son, who looked like he was 13 and their daughter, who was maybe 10. As we ate our appetizers, we kept a casual eye on the mirror to see when the silence would be broken. Surely the parents had some urgent business that pulled them away and, hopefully, could be handled quickly so that they could enjoy their family dinner. The thing was the parents didn’t look upset or like there was any urgency to what they were doing. The entire family had heads down, eyes on their respective screens, and didn’t have any conversation or eye contact with each other until their food arrived — maybe 20 minutes later.
Ok, so I am old enough to be thoroughly and predictably annoyed by this kind of behavior but it was my 24 year old daughter’s reaction that was more interesting. She wondered: What kind of family goes out to dinner to sit in silence across from each other? Why didn’t they just stay at home and order in a pizza? Did I think they ever talked to each other? Why would the parents tolerate this behavior and what was wrong with them for being on their phones the entire time themselves? Did they know they were being rude to the waiter? She made some general commentary like “you would NEVER have let us do that at a restaurant.” Then, noting that teenagers can be “awful” (and, yes, I love when she acknowledges how hard kids can be on their parents during the teen years), she wondered how the kids would ever learn to appreciate what their parents had to say if they didn’t hear them? And how would the parents know what was going on with their kids if they didn’t listen to them, even if just to hear them complaining? Pretty thoughtful really.
I truly think that technology affords us tremendous opportunity and advantage but sometimes enough is just enough. Watching this scene, I had to wonder how did it come to this? Maybe the parents didn’t want to argue with their kids and knew that’s what would happen if they told them the stow the phones? Maybe they had just given up on the whole issue of technology use? I am the first one to tell parents to pick their battles but this is one battle worth fighting. Kids need to know that there is more to life than what they see on their phones and they aren’t likely to learn that if we don’t model it for them. So, as hard as it is to turn off, we need to set some limits. Maybe then we can all look up and see what is happening around us—and that’s usually something worth talking about.
Maureen Brown, MBA, is Executive Director for Challenge Success, where she oversees daily operations as well as marketing and strategic planning. Ms. Brown comes to Challenge Success with over 20 years of consulting experience in health care, financial services, and technology. Prior to joining Challenge Success, Ms. Brown worked as an independent consultant and as a Partner at APM, Incorporated, where she structured, sold and managed strategic and operations improvement engagements for health care institutions, primarily university medical centers. Ms. Brown has also worked in Cash Management for Philadelphia National Bank and Citibank. She has been on various boards at Georgetown, and most recently co-founded the Bay Area Georgetown Technology Alliance. Ms. Brown has also served as a Board member at Woodside School.