The plates are on the table, the water jug is full and the smell of lasagne is wafting around the kitchen. You’ve had a tricky day and you’re looking forward to sitting down and chatting with the family. The kids traipse in, take their places and in glorious synchronicity… get out their phones at the table. Your heart sinks. Let it go and suffer another meal with everyone wrapped up in the world of their own devices? Or make a stand and brace yourself for another battle leading to the inevitable contemptuous looks and snide comments?
You long for a meal with good conversation and carefree laughter, a meal that brings you all together as a family… a meal with no phones at the table…. but that so often feels elusive. Again, you’re left wondering how it came to this.
In my book, The Board Game Family: Reclaim your children from the screen, I talk about the separation spiral and why you’ll never get your teenage children to tell you about their day. Here’s how the spiral takes hold as children get older:
1. The child chooses to spend less time with their parents than they used to, so the parents are not as involved in their day and they don’t have as many natural opportunities to chat.
2. The parents become more disconnected with their child’s life, but they yearn for more connection and more time to talk. Whenever the parents get the opportunity, they will ‘show interest’ in their child’s life, usually by asking lots of questions about their day, their friends, their teachers, etc.
3. The child finds this interaction annoying and possibly boring, getting frustrated because their parents ask them the same questions seemingly every time they meet. The child goes quiet and grunts.
4. The adult pads out the silence by talking about their own day, trying to find something to interest their offspring.
5. The child rolls their eyes, while simultaneously checking their smartphone, then makes a hasty exit to avoid having to answer annoying questions and listen to inane babble about their parents’ pitiful lives.
6. Later at dinner, the child launches into a monologue about the intricacies of some video game they are playing, or performs an entire YouTube play-through video word-for-word with a full range of accents and sound effects.
7. The parents roll their eyes and tell the child to stop filling their head with useless information. They then comment on how well they’d be doing at school if only they put the same time and application into their studies as they do into their useless screen-based pastimes.
8. The child looks at the parents incredulously and with a pronounced sneer. They inwardly marvel at their parents’ ability to constantly put a downer on everything. They grumble about how nobody understands them anymore. The child vows to talk less and spend less time with their parents and more time talking to friends who do understand them.
9. Return to Step 1 and continue.
We don’t start each day (or each meal) with a clean sheet. So how do we break the cycle and start to pull the family closer, rather than pushing them away? Here are five ways to stop kids looking at their phones at the table
Ask interesting questions
Ban yourself from asking the questions you normally aim to open a conversation with. Don’t ask about their day, school or homework. Instead pull something out of the left field. Ask a question that takes them by surprise, that makes them think, that requires imagination and sparks discussion. For example…
- Can you tell when someone is lying?
- What is your personal brand?
- Is it better for someone to have a wide range of superficial knowledge or deep knowledge about a few things?
- If you were in a rock group, what would it be called?
- If you could only store one type of food in your pocket, what would it be?
- If you could teleport to anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
- Would you rather be covered in fur or covered in scales?
- Would you rather live in a boat or a camper van?
- Would you rather have the ability to reverse one decision you make each day or stop time for 10 seconds each day?
Here are some great ‘Would you rather’ questions from the Family Dinner Project.
Talk about shared interests or hobbies
Some families unite over a fanatical shared love… of musical theatre or a sports team, perhaps. But the things that bring us together don’t have to be big. It may just be a TV show that everyone loves (or loves to hate), a comedian that makes you all laugh or a celebrity that you all like to follow. When you’ve found the common ground, you’ve got a safe conversation starter, something that will shift focus from phones to people.
Don’t shut the kids down
When your children do launch into tales about things that have happened at school, “funny” things that friends have said, or line-by-line recreations of YouTube sketches… don’t shut them down. Stop yourself from jumping in with judgments and loaded comments. Tame those reflexes! Think of it as a game. A game in which your objective is to keep them talking as long as possible. It’s not about what they say, the fact that they are talking is enough. Be interested. Show your children that you care about what is going on in their day and their head, even if you wish they were talking about something more worthwhile!
Play a game while eating
Sometimes playing is easier than talking. If you’re struggling to make the conversation flow naturally, just pick up a game instead. Games give us a focus away from screens but they also spark conversation. There are loads of games you can play while eating. Many card games or pen & paper games work well over dinner; have a look in the ‘games and puzzles to play’ section of our blog for some quick ideas.
If you want something a bit different, try our placemat games. These were inspired by children’s colouring placemats you get in many restaurants. Since growing up I’ve always been jealous when children I’m with get activity placemats and I don’t, which is why I created the placemat games. Two games (one on either side of the placemat) in which everyone plays every turn, each using the same dice throws on their own game-sheet (placemat). Have a look. When play is simultaneous, like this, players don’t have much opportunity to be distracted by phones. Games hold everyone’s interest and will probably actually extend your meal times – increasing the time you spend together.
Avoid a phone ban
Rigid imposition of rules and ugly showdowns leave long-lasting imprints. Banning phones at the table will almost certainly cause more problems than it solves. What we’re aiming for is a situation where you can gently ask a child to put their phone away and they will do so without drama. You won’t get there through a full-on ban. Banning things just makes us want them more. Banning things causes unnecessary antagonism. Banning things causes us huge problems when we invariably break our own rules. Instead, work on making the offline world as irresistible as the online one, so that the phone seems like the less attractive option.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Do you have other tips for minimising phones at the table? Or do you disagree and embrace devices at dinner?