Care and Feeding

Phones Down

How can I preserve family togetherness at meals if I can’t ban devices altogether?

A father and mother looking at their smartphones over coffee, while the mother is holding a toddler.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by petrunjela/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

Do you have any advice regarding electronics (i.e., phones) during family mealtimes? I grew up in a family where dinner was family time, meaning it was about being emotionally present and sharing what happened during our day. My husband’s family, on the other hand, had dinner together every night as well but was less communicative in general. (The goal was to eat and escape as soon as possible, so to speak.) It wasn’t like we had smartphones or even cellphones during those years, but I think our upbringings have influenced our respective attitudes: He has no problem pulling out his phone and playing games or surfing the internet while eating together, and I inherently find it rude, though lately I’ve found myself slipping into it too when the conversation has stalled.

Now that our toddler is starting to understand and interact with us, I am hoping to agree on a family policy that discourages screen time over face time. The twist is that I am the one with a job that requires me to be on call periodically overnight, meaning I have to answer phone calls in a timely fashion, fairly regularly, even at dinner. I can tell my daughter has already picked up on the whole “Mommy-is-on-an-important-call” vibe. She stares intently at me when I’m using my “work voice” and will quiet down immediately (whether I ought to step away during these calls is another question, I guess).

It feels hypocritical to ban phones at dinner for everyone except me. And at the same time, we certainly use our phones for a lot of other reasons that feel legit, such as taking photos—those captured “firsts,” like the first time the baby eats with a spoon, are so precious!—or occasionally FaceTiming relatives in other time zones when it’s tough to find another time that works for everyone. Any thoughts on how to preserve togetherness at mealtimes while having a realistic and fair approach toward using our smartphones?

—Hung Up

Dear HU,

Our devices can be a distraction, but they’re still important in our lives. You can surely find a way to carve out some time without them, but you also don’t have to put them on ice for the majority of the evening in order to get some quality time going.

Let your husband know that you are interested in establishing a rule that phones are only to be used at the dinner table when absolutely necessary—e.g., when you have an urgent work call to respond to, when the dinner hour is the only time that works to FaceTime with loved ones from across the country, or when your little one has dumped a bowl of spaghetti atop her head and you must document the occasion to enjoy in perpetuity. You can also identify a few scenarios where the rule is relaxed, such as when you order takeout and are seated on the couch as opposed to the dining table; perhaps, when you dine out, phones are allowed only until the food is served.

Establish a reasonable length for the phone-free meals (30–45 minutes); this should give you enough time to catch up, make eye contact with each other, and connect without the distractions of the world. Once that stated period has passed, if the meal is mostly done, you may feel comfortable allowing tablets and phones to emerge during dessert or while clearing the table.

—Jamilah