While on holiday recently, Mr B and I were enjoying dinner together. As some couples do when married for nearly twenty years, we tend to do more people watching than gazing into each other’s eyes over the fois gras (although we never order that as it’s downright cruel – ask a duck). On this particular evening, Mr B spotted a family behind me and became quickly fixated by what he observed.
Being a candid kind of man, he was quick to show his disapproval and incredulity at what he considered ‘diabolicial parenting’ on the table behind me. I turned discreetly to see a mother and father with two children all eating their supper. The father held a mobile phone in one hand, while using a folk to feed himself with the other. His wife stared into space and his two sons twiddled pasta into their mouths while entranced by an iPad propped up between them.
Knowing my husband’s propensity for expressions of ferocity in the face of many of life’s seeming injustices, both small and large, I attempted to rationalise their behaviour to him.
“Well, don’t worry. Perhaps dad had to do an urgent business email or something…and you never know they might have been talking all day!” But he was insistent.
“I doubt it – I bet they have those things on in the car instead of looking out the window too. Kids should be enjoying conversation with their parents, that’s what coming to the table is for!” He was adamant and I had to agree. We have seen this pacification of children many times before in recent years and almost always during occasions when we had some of the most memorable conversations with our own children.
We tried to continue our meal while Mr B gave me a running commentary of ‘that family behind you’. After some time, the family finished their silent supper and their plates were cleared. To his continued annoyance, another iPad appeared allowing both children to have one each. The older boy had previously made several attempts to engage his parents in conversation, even walking around the table a few times, but being offered an iPad to himself was the pacification his parents sought.
The family then settled down for the rest of their stultified meal, engrossed in their own electronic worlds. Kicking my husband another thirty times under table while asking him to keep his voice down, he reminded me, in as loud a voice as he could, that when our children were little and out with us at a restaurant, they would have been running around now between the tables, or rolling around underneath them, and above all – talking to us!
Yet none of this seemed to reach them, not least I expect because of the language barrier of which I am thankful. Perhaps Mr B’s furrowed brow and piercing looks were considered merely the characteristics of ‘that uptight English bloke over there….after all, his wife kicks him all the time and tells him to be quiet’.
In a last-ditch attempt to find some solace, Mr B took a surreptitious snap of the family and said, “write about this, you have to.” And so here I am, and here is that photo.
Seeing as I know nothing about this family, I feel it only fair to say that I can only comment on about an hour and a half of their lives together. It could well be that they have talked and talked all day and this is a rare occurrence for them. Yet I can’t help feel, as Mr B said, that being together and talking ‘is what coming to the table is for’.
The photograph makes me feel sad. Was this a missed opportunity to be together and learn about all the wondrous things those two, lovely boys had in their heads, all the questions they might have asked given the chance, all the anecdotes that could have been shared with them to help shape their ideas and make sense of the world? This seemed to be made plain by the family a few tables away with two young girls, who were engaged in hearty laughter, loving banter and yes, a few laps between the tables.
And how many times do I witness parents picking their children up from school, leading their child away while transfixed by their phones – emitting only short, stunted answers to their child’s questions, with no urge to interrogate them about their day, let alone point out a different kind of tree and wonder how old it might be, or why lines in the road are yellow and not pink, or why clouds are different shapes, or why soil is always brown. Surely no text is more important than this? No post? No Whatsapp message? Surely?
Today, we hear that since 1997 the amount of girls self-harming due to severe mental illness has doubled. We know that more and more children need help to navigate themselves through the often problematic psychological expedition of being human. Mental health problems have never been so prevalent in young children. In my experience too as a class teacher, more children find it harder to focus in class for even short periods of time. How much worse this journey through life must be, if our young children grow up deficient in that closeness that comes about through those seemingly mundane conversations while sat around sucking up spaghetti together, or walking home hand in hand after a long day at school. These were to me the gold dust of parenthood. They are the crown jewels of memories I carry with me from mothering my two children when they were young. They’re not perfect now. Like all young adults they are arrogant at times, egotistical, vehement in their views (which I adore), naïve too, and always, always messy (yes, I failed there), but also often wise, thoughtful and inquisitive, and competent communicators. Like all young people they have their moments, their crises and trip ups, but somehow, they know who they are and how to help themselves.
Who can say that this was down to not having mobile phones or iPads at mealtimes, or me not actually owning a mobile phone when I used to pick them up from primary school. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. There are many reasons why children turn out alright or not. But there is something to this; there is something truly awful about that photograph and what went on around that dinner table. People are losing their children to screens and I’m sure this can’t end well.
I’m sure I will never ever see that family again in my entire life. It’s likely those two boys will grow up into healthy, productive and responsible adults; I hope so. But that evening will stay etched in my mind as a warning that humans need to take great care here. We are a species of communicators who have broken bread over ancient fires, while telling tales and sharing stories for thousands of years. The young have always tugged at our heels and asked why? and how? And we have learnt about being human by looking into each other’s faces and talking for a while here and there…