Our family ate dinner at a local restaurant last weekend. While there, I counted all of the individuals on cell phones during their time in the restaurant. Almost every child in the restaurant, most teens, and a good 1/3 of parents were engaged on devices, instead of engaged with each other.

A study recently released in Pediatrics journal found that more than 70% of families struggle with this bad dinnertime habit.

The bad habit: swiping, typing and talking on cell phones. Of 55 caregivers studied, researchers recorded 40 of them using a mobile device during their meal.

But, is sending an occasional text or answering a call during dinner really that bad?

As a mother and a family therapist, I have found that the most important ingredient for meaningful family dinners is paying attention. It’s what our children and spouses or partners most want from us. But that attention doesn’t come automatically – it’s a struggle for all of us in our fast-paced, distracted world.

Research supports that, despite the distractions, most Americans rate family meals as more important to children’s emotional development than a long list of other healthy activities, from sports to religious attendance. In fact, 95% of Americans in our research believe that meal times are a unique opportunity to connect as a family.

And of course they are right. So why are we letting our devices get in the way of this critical psycho-social bonding opportunity? The presence of any of the following distractions offset any benefits from family meals: watching TV, telephone or cell phone conversations, doing homework, playing electronic games and listening to personal music devices.

These are harmless activities at the right time, but the right times do not include family meals.

Paying attention during a meal turns a feeding event into a family ritual. I have learned to generally not ask kids and teens “What did you do in school today?” because it generally leads to a stock answer like “Nothing.” Instead, I ask about what a friend was up to these days, or whether that boring teacher had gotten any more interesting recently. And I save up stories from my day that I thought my kids might be interested in, especially ones that involved a mistake or screw-up on my part.

Another important player that defines a quality dinner for children is the mood. One nearly miraculous thing we did when our children were young was to lower the dining room lights with a dimmer switch, and then light a candle. Young children practically go into a trance in front of a candle, and their reward for a cooperative dinner (no fighting and minimal whining) was–to blow out the candle!

There’s much we can do as parents to make our family dinners more memorable – for our children AND for ourselves. Which brings us back to the original note about devices – Not every text harms your child, but the accumulation of distractions over many meals may send a message that your priorities are elsewhere.

Mealtime is an opportunity to give children what they most want: Your attention. 

Until next week, Be Wise!

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