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Are You Guilty of Distracted Dining?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Look around the next time you eat in a fast food restaurant: what are parents doing while their children eat? A new study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that most parents are on the phone.

Researchers watched 55 parents or caregivers and their children as they shared a fast food meal. A whopping 70% of adults (about 39 of them) used their phone – to talk, text, surf the web, check social media, or even watch videos – at least once.  One-third of them used the phone continuously while the children ate.

The children noticed, of course. The study found that kids acted up while their parents were focused on their phones more than they did when parents were focused on them. Parents whose children misbehaved over-reacted, according to researchers, instead of reacting more appropriately.

Naturally, this is a problem. Children who act out in public are a nuisance. Parents who are unreasonably harsh are less successful in guiding their children. But the problem is deeper. Parents who ignore their children during mealtimes are missing out on important learning opportunities for their kids.

Researcher Elaine Schulte notes, “Children really need that interaction and the best thing for developing minds is to build that relationship where the parent is looking at the child, where the child is looking at the parent, they’re engaging in conversation.” Children whose parents have withdrawn into their own, handheld world miss out on chances to talk and think. Conversation is an important vehicle for learning. Less conversation means less learning.

The problem may not be confined to fast food dining. The problem may be happening at other meals, maybe even at your house, during family dinner time. What can you do instead?

  1. Keep phones away from the table.  Put them in another room entirely. This goes for children’s phones and handhelds too.
  2. Put phones – while they’re away from the table in another room –  on mute during mealtimes so you won’t be distracted by a beeping notification.
  3. Turn off the television too.
  4. Talk with your children about pleasant topics. Be prepared with neutral conversation starters, like “What was the funniest thing that happened today?” or “Where would you go if you could travel anywhere?” Get your children talking and talk with them.
  5. If no one talks with you, talk yourself. Answer your own question. If your family is unused to making conversation, it may take some time to get things rolling.

Don’t give up. If you’re used to consulting your phone frequently, not consulting it will seem odd and uncomfortable. Stick with this, though. Make a new habit to replace the old one.

Make the habit of talking with your kids.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.