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Advice | Carolyn Hax: How sad is it when parents stare at their phones?


Hi Caroline: Today we have breakfast in a family restaurant. Sat in a booth next to a mom and dad and two boys about 8 and 10 years old. The parents each had their cell phones on. The boys had no cell phones. The only time the mother looked up from her phone was to order and occasionally, when she ate, to talk to her husband. The only time the father looked up from his phone was when he ordered or when he looked at his wife’s phone.

There was no communication between the parents and the children. I watched as the kids ate their fruity pancakes and didn’t talk to their parents or each other for the entire meal.

This makes me very sad. What I wouldn’t give to eat breakfast like that again with my boys when they were little. We had so much fun when our family went for breakfast.

I just can’t think about this. What happened to families? I would appreciate your thoughts.

worried mother: That certainly paints a depressing picture.

We just don’t know what it’s a picture of.

You think it’s a picture of parents addicted to phones and the kids who are disconnected, speaking in their silence for all modern families.

But your snapshot says nothing about where they’re from, where they’re going, why they’re using phones, who they’re becoming. You’re jumping to conclusions that are completely out of context.

I also notice an absence that is often disturbingly present at tables in family restaurants where kids don’t get their adults’ attention: desperate ploys to get their adults’ attention.

So what you might see as neglect was two well-behaved, well-behaved, listened children eating meals in peace.

Perhaps breakfast was not the family event, but the pause between events.

Perhaps on the last day of a holiday they were relieved not to be able to talk.

Perhaps the parents were at work tying up loose ends to free up the rest of the day for their boys. Maybe they agreed, “You make us work a little bit, we’ll give you fruity-faced pancakes, then we’ll go on an adventure.”

Perhaps the parents sought out children’s museums or hiking trails.

Perhaps their phone time will yield the name of a restaurant that appeals to all ages and that is halfway through the two games their children played that day with their different teams so they could make a day out of it together.

Are you still sure what you saw?

Are you at least willing not to be?

Here’s something I can say with confidence. Judging is more reliably alienating and less potentially useful and less open to interpretation than telephones at breakfast.

If you are currently concerned about the state of families – rightly so, they are navigating a lot, including the versatile mind-fork of smartphones – then I encourage you to channel those concerns into the kind of supportive connection you want to see.

If you can really leave your judgmental impulses in the car, address a family like this with kind words. “I know I’m intruding, but I noticed your boys have nice manners.” That matches what you saw, right? Or find another sincere compliment. Invite them to watch the moment lovingly through your eyes instead of judging them for not seeing it themselves.

If that feels weird and pushy, use your sad energy in a breakfast booth to support young families you know more about.

Again, by “support” I mean paying attention and asking thoughtful questions and helping with what she see it as their struggle, not what you as their shortcomings – and even then only if it’s welcome.

Otherwise, just bring kindness, an open mind, a humble awareness of what you don’t know, and please, on behalf of every parent in that box, the common sense to recognize that if your experience raising kids predates smartphones, you know not really what you would have done in their place.

Hi Caroline: If I’m having a bad day and venting to my partner, how helpful is that to me and her? I feel a little better, but when she’s having a great day, I worry about putting her down.

Luke: By caring about how she feels, you’re already on the side of the scale that’s actually helpful. Happy husband.

However, to stay there, you have to ask directly about her feelings. First, it depends on what you mean by “bleeding”. Bumbling the same long story to her about faceless workers is very different from telling smooth stories about co-workers she knows. The latter can help a partner feel involved in your life.

And, are these just nuisances to worry about, or are they a threat to your livelihood?

Does she shrug things off or push through at 3am?

There’s just no one-size-fits-all answer here.

Except: questions. ‘Does it bother you if I vent like this? It helps me and I thank you for it, but I don’t want to bring you down.”

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