Kids in Restaurants on iPhones — Including Mine


by Abbie Schiller, Founder and CEO of The Mother Company

A while ago I was out to dinner with a friend, marveling at the number of families with kids on iPhones, and other mobile devices. Every single kid from 18 months to 18 years was sitting there, pinging away and so were their parents.  No one looked up to order.  I shook my head, dripping with judgment, “What is happening to the American Family?” I thought, “Kids need to talk to their parents – parents should engage with their kids especially at dinner. NEVER will that be my family.” Well, never is a strong word, isn’t it?

When my daughter was growing up we schlepped a “goodie bag” everywhere we went.  It included books, crayons, toys, stickers, puzzles, all sorts of non-noisemaking no-small-pieces-to-lose things, and carted them to wherever we lugged her.  Planes.  Restaurants. Car rides.  This is how I was raised. For one cross country flight, I packed a goodie bag so intricate – having bought new “exciting!” items, wrapped them (gifts!) and meticulously organized seven hours of activities.  The bag weighed 15 pounds and my husband dutifully carried it along with the car seat, stroller and his own carry-on.

Most of the time, the goodie bag worked – except for the hundreds of times it didn’t. Then we reverted to our “Plan B:” walking around. I have a distinct memory of looking out of a restaurant’s picture glass window and seeing a freshly choreographed “Doe a Deer” dance number being performed by the two of them.   As entertaining as it may have been, I didn’t love that stage. During meals out, my husband and I scarfed, or ate alone.  We had anxiety.  We got stressed the second our daughter would start to squirm and squeal.  But iPhones weren’t yet invented – and we had no other choice.

Our son was born when our daughter was six. We were still packing goodie bags (on the rare occasions we ate out or travelled).   On a parent yahoo group I frequent, one parent lamented “what’s with kids on iPhones in restaurants?!” I chimed in, “I know! How about packing some coloring books or something?” And she shot back, “How about just talking to your kids?!” Suddenly it was a parenting smack-down – the kind that happens every day that zaps the confidence out of your efforts and makes you realize other families are managing waaaay better than yours.  It goes like this, “Your kid eats broccoli? Congrats, mine does too.  We grow our own in our organic garden we water with purified sea-water under a sun with no UVB rays.”  Crazy.  No one wins.

Two weeks ago our children, (now 9 and two-and-a-half) my husband and I, popped into a new neighborhood café.  It was an outdoor casual dining kind of place.  There was a guitar player in the courtyard on break.  We chose our table away from others, knowing it was close to bedtime for both kids and at least one of them was likely to be a handful.  We were starving and attempting to do what normal non-parent people do effortlessly — eat out.  With no goodie bag.

My husband and I were mentally and physically exhausted from a long week and a long day.  We glanced at the menu and ordered.  We tried to engage the kids around the events of the day. The conversation only held for so long.  The squirming began.  We tried to keep them in their seats. But we were done.  And then, we knew. It was time to try what all other parents were already doing.  Simultaneously, we surrendered.  We reached into our pockets and passed over our phones, one to each kid.  I cringed a little, ready to apologize to anyone who didn’t approve – mainly myself.  It was glorious…and awful at the same time.

We let them play on the phones for ten minutes.  Ok, maybe 15.  For that time there was silence and pure kid happiness – and therefore adult happiness.  We could sip and not gulp.  My husband and I could look at each other.  We even had a conversation. “When the guitar player returns, we’re taking the phones back,” I announced. I could tell 15 minutes was a slippery slope to the families who never looked up from their devices.

Yet my mind was racing: Relax, the kids are only on these things for 15 minutes, we’re here for an hour.  We’ll interact with them for the rest of the dinner.  Hell, we have interacted with them for the past 12 hours.  What’s 15 minutes?  But ugh.  I’m officially “that” parent now. No I’m not.  But I could be…  No, I deserve a break too.  It’s not like I take them to McDonalds.  We’re eating healthy food in a nice restaurant, dammit.  But their brains are on junk.  No they’re not – they’re learning how to spell “cooperate” on my favorite kids’ app, “Endless Alphabet.” Instead of lugging a bag full of toys and crayons, we now just had a digital goodie bag. Of all people, I should support healthy versions of children’s media – I produce it!

Deep breath.  There are plenty of studies illustrating the educational benefits of children with apps.  Over 8 million iPads are now in classrooms!  I knew I was rationalizing.  But still… It’s all going to be fine, I reasoned.  My kids are going to be fine.  Their media consumption is totally fine.  Everything in moderation. Then their salad, broccoli and lentils arrived which they devoured.  And I felt a little better… even though I hadn’t grown the broccoli myself.

Please share your thoughts/anecdotes/musings about this topic below in the comments section. We love hearing from you!

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music, handmade dolls, and more.

Posted in: Discipline, Humor, Modern Parenting, Parental Wisdom

Comments (8)

  1. Julie Lee

    We have a no electronics during meals at home. We’ll permit electronics after the meal when dining out so that our child can keep himself busy while we take time to eat. There are great program out there that help kids learn (like the Endless Alphabets or block.ly) so I’m all for it.

  2. Brisja

    There is no right answer to this question. We feel that waiting is an important skill to cultivate, and have been working on it since day one with our son. We do not take a goodie bag to restaurants, nor do we allow electronics at the table. As a result, our now eleven year old can sit and enjoy the people at the table with him, notice the decor, have discussions about the past, present and future to entertain himself and the others with him, and just take a moment to do nothing but “be” and relax. I know this might not work for all families or all children within a family, but it worked for us. And we have spent a lot of quality time around the table as a family, and with our friends. That is time we will never get back, so I am glad we spent it engaged, together.

  3. Gretta

    I can totally relate to your confusion! My kids are 3.5 and 1.5 and go out to dinner is no picnic. That said, I feel like I’d like to be the kind of parent who does NOT allow games or videos at the table. Every time I look around in a restaurant and see everyone on their phones in stead of interacting it totally depresses me. For me, it’s a matter of thinking long term gain (for the kids) instead of short term gain(for me). What do I want my kids to learn from me? How do I want them to behave and interact? I don’t want to have kids who are glued to devices when they are in social situations. The thing is, that also means that I AND MY HUSBAND can not be on our devices in these situations either, cause as we all know, in the end the kids learn mostly by our example. Now, all this said, I have to admit that 4 days out of every week my husband and I eat our dinner in front of the TV (only “good” programming of course!), so maybe my feelings on this issue all come down to “do as i say, not as i do”. I think in the end, I just want my kids to be better than i am.

    • Abbie

      I love the long term vs short term debate. And I subscribe to your philosophy too, for the most part. For every dinner at home, we eat at the table as a family without any electronics. When we go out as a family we don’t normally use our iPhones to keep the kids in their seats. And, again, it isn’t the first thing we reach for. But every once in a while when we are exhausted and just want a break, it’s a treat for all of us, for about 15 minutes. I debate the merits – and then get annoyed that I have to debate it at all. Why does it have to be “all or nothing”?

  4. Sabrina schiller

    What a womderful exploration of a modern parent’s dilema regarding children in the electronic era! Your articles constantly amaze me. Always interesting, always different, always extremely relevant to the real problems parents face. I know this will help others who are pioneering decisions like yours.

    • Abbie

      Thanks, mom. 😉

  5. Liza

    We have the same conflicting emotions about electronics at the dinner table! Combined with my husband’s blackberry and iphone for work PLUS his personal phone, he was becoming the worst offender and not helping the “no electronics at the dinner table” rule. Our compromise was electronics away when the food arrives at the table which applied for all of us. Another way we make sure the kids are unplugged is our Summer camping trip where there’s no internet access for anyone.

    • Abbie

      Love it. At home we have a “no tech at the table” rule – but ugh the restaurant waiting and squirming and having to be quiet. I’m clearly still conflicted.