There’s something I’ve been taking for granted: crayons.
Crayons at restaurants, more specifically.
I just assume they’ll be available, because why wouldn’t they be. Restaurateurs know that people with young kids dine out. They also know that said kids can be loud, especially when they’re hungry, which is usually the reason why people go to restaurants in the first place. So, setting a stack of crayons and a sheet to color in front of a cranky toddler is usually a welcome (albeit brief) distraction until your food arrives.
That’s why I was more than a little surprised when we stopped at a Chili’s a few weeks ago and were told they didn’t have any crayons. “Really?” I asked, incredulous. Yes, really. Instead, the hostess and our waitress both proceeded to plop a “ziosk” in front of A: a stupid little electronic device that sits on all the tables and tempts diners of all ages to play games while they eat. I realize it has other purposes, too, like offering another way to order food or pay your tab, or sometimes, apparently, it serves as the menu itself.
It’s bad enough when a restaurant doesn’t have any crayons. But then, when they tell me that the children’s menu is located solely on this electronic brain fryer that they keep trying to stick in front of my kid, I start to lose it. WTF.
Now, I see a lot of people doing this: handing their child an iPad to entertain him while the grownups eat in a rare moment of peace. And to a certain extent, I get that. We’ve all been there. God knows, since Baby J was born, A has had her fair exposure to “Charlie and Lola” cartoons while I steal some time to get the baby to sleep without a two-year-old running amok. It’s not like my kid never has a screen in front of her.
But in our family, we don’t do screens at the table when we’re eating together. I can think of no more antisocial behavior than this.
Growing up in my (big fat Greek) family, eating was partly about sustenance, and largely about socializing. Gathering around the table was an occasion for us to reconnect and talk about our day, and this is what I want for my kids, too: to recognize that when we sit down together to eat, we are sharing each other’s company—something that simply can’t be accomplished with a screen in your face.
People like Linda Stone, a tech exec, have actually been talking about the effects of children’s extensive exposure to all these screens, especially when we, their parents, can’t help but keep our eyes glued to our iPhones all day long. In an interview with The Atlantic, she said:
What we’re doing now is modeling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of eye contact with people. It ultimately can feed the development of a kind of sociopathy and psychopathy” [emphasis my own].
Call her assessment overdramatic, but I believe that in social situations, kids should be expected to be social, just like the adults. So when a restaurant chain is making that almost impossible for us, by insisting that my child use a screen to order and then daring her not to throw a tantrum because we’re not allowing her to play video games during lunch, I take issue. I’ve never seen a child as transfixed by crayons as by a screen.
I’ll end with a sad anecdote. While we were eating at Chili’s, with the stupid ziosk pushed all the way to the unoccupied corner of the table, I saw a little boy sitting with what appeared to be his father. Their table had little on it: only a couple of drinks and a plate of French fries, and the damned ziosk. That boy, who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, sat mesmerized by the screen the entire time I was watching, and dad was on his phone almost just as long.
I imagined that this might have been a “guys’ lunch” on a Sunday afternoon—a special treat, a bonding moment. But instead, that screen seemed to be robbing the guys of their time. They barely said a word to each other—hardly even a glance. So sad, I thought, but where were those crayons, anyway?