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‘Tech at the table is lazy parenting’

PUBLISHED: 19:30 16 December 2019

We need to stop letting our children use their phones at the dinner table at home and out and about says our food editor  Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We need to stop letting our children use their phones at the dinner table at home and out and about says our food editor Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Jamie Oliver recently admitted he lets his youngest child use electronics at the table, but our food and drink editor says it’s time we put a stop to pandering to our kids and teach them how to be responsible diners.

Disclaimer first off. I love Jamie Oliver. I think he has done marvels for changing the way we eat in this country. As The Naked Chef, he inspired men to don pinnies (and little else maybe?) and, 'bosh' whip up tasty, easy dinners. He campaigned tirelessly for better school dinners for our children. Through Fifteen, he gave young people purpose. And he just seems like an all-round good bloke.

But his recent comments where the 44-year-old admits to letting youngest son, River, three, use a device at the dinner table were a bit of a shock.

"If he's not eating, if you put a screen in front of him it hypnotises him and you can put anything in his mouth," said the 44-year-old chef.

"I hate screens, however River is such a feral child. Sometimes, we have to have a screen."

Jamie admits the family is usually zero tolerance, but as many parents who've 'given in' will attest, it's a slippery slope once we allow our kids to use technology at mealtimes.

So why on earth are we doing it? Everywhere I go these days I see young children comatosed by the likes of Peppa Pig (that seems to be a favourite) either on mobile phones or tablets.

I get it. Sure, that's an easy way to keep them quiet and if we're feeling particularly frazzled on occasion this can be a life saver. But by relying on electronics to essentially babysit our kids at an increasing rate, we're denying them social skills they most certainly will need when they get older.

Flinging them a device if they throw a tantrum to 'keep the peace', is tantamount to telling them patience doesn't matter.

And what about socialising? What about the art of conversation?

What does it say about us as a society if we'd rather keep our children quiet at one end of the table, than try to engage with them? Than deal with their tantrums in a measured way? Personally, I think it's lazy parenting - unless, of course, you have a SEN child who needs a distraction to give you 'normal' family time together.

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In our house I am a huge stickler for rules and my children know I'll basically kick-off if they so much as attempt to smuggle their phones to the table.

I spend my whole day on a screen. Ella has TV marathons when she gets in from school. And Ethan is so addicted to that damn computer game Fortnite that we've had to enforce a rigid time limit.

When it comes to dinner it's all about us. No distractions. No calls. No Youtube videos. It's one of the only times of day we can be together, look one another in the eye and really talk. There might be a bit of music in the background (maybe with the odd fight over playing Kiss or Absolute Radio). As our children get older and become more and more drawn into their own worlds, this is a part of the day my husband and I have come to cherish.

That's not to say it hasn't been without its trials. During their short lives we've of course had huge temper tantrums at the table. There are nights where one likes dinner and the other doesn't. Some where neither of them wants to eat what we've prepared (they get toast in this case). As babies and toddlers they fought against the mighty veg (although Ethan had quite the thing for cabbage). And, yes, they had wobbles over not liking certain things in restaurants. At one point Ella would lose it if any sauce touched her potatoes. Kids! But that's part and parcel of the parenting experience. It is our job to teach them that A, it's not alright to have a tantrum over silly things, and B, to nurture their young palates.

I remember really vividly a Russell Howard sketch where he said he'd been threatened by 'the dinner witch' as a nipper. Instead of Peppa Pig, our house latched onto 'the dinner witch' who could turn up at any time to check the children were eating well. A major fail was when, out for an early tea over Halloween at a village pub, a crowd of adults in fancy dress walked past - the silhouette of a witch's hat looming through the blinds. I've never seen my kids eat carrots so nicely.

There are a few things I've learnt over the years about children and dinner times. Firstly, don't give in. Babies will cry. That's what they do. If that happens, take them somewhere until they calm down and use other methods to distract them. It's bloody hard work keeping under threes occupied and happy in restaurants but it really is part and parcel of being a parent. All those years playing peek-a-boo, colouring in for the millionth time, and playing I Spy will pay off in the end, and those years go far too quickly. When our children were small we'd take them out for early dinners (before 6.30pm). That way we avoided prime 'dinner date' time for other customers - a lot of eateries tend to be quieter at this time- good training hours for young diners.

Secondly, they'll eat what they eat. As long as we give our children a primarily healthy diet we won't go far wrong, but if they don't like peas, or broccoli or cabbage right now, it really isn't the end of the world, and it's definitely not worth getting fractious over. Introduce new vegetables and fruits gradually and gently. Give them mostly what they do like, and a little of what they don't. As they get older, their tastes will change. There's no way I would have eaten avocado, cabbage or sprouting broccoli, even as a moody teen, but I love them now. Give them space to explore their own tastebuds. But if pasta in tomato sauce, carrot sticks and strawberries are their thing for now, well, so be it.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you can, eat together. Every day. Whether that's a cheese toastie snatched on a Saturday afternoon as you stand in the kitchen, or a mid-week bowl of spag bol. Time is precious and spending it breaking bread with the people we love is one of the single best things we can do with the moments we have.


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