Friday, June 18, 2010

Isolated Together

Today we stopped for lunch at Famous Dave's for some BBQ.

After the normal 15 minutes getting all three girls settled and set up and ready to order, I looked around and I noticed a family seated in a booth next to us. There were three adults and one young girl, maybe about 14 years old. I thought it a bit odd, but she had earphones in her ears. She kept them on the whole time we were there, even when she went to the restroom, and until they left.

Towards the end of our meal, on the other side of us, I saw another family, again consisting of three adults and one young girl, maybe 15 or 16 years of age. Again this girl had her earphones on and was just staring at her MP3 player.

Now, maybe the adults at both tables were discussing shades of shag carpet or making appointments to watch paint dry, but it seemed strange to see a family out to eat and having a member of the family completely cut off from the rest. She was at the same table but oblivious to their conversation with no interest in contributing.

The fact I saw the same scenario twice in one dining experience made me wonder if this is a new trend. Now, as rare as it can be for families to eat together, are they physically together but anything but "together" in terms of conversation? Maybe it is just these two teenagers. I wouldn't know the circumstances beyond what I saw, but it seemed awfully rude. Rude of the girls to ignore their company and rude of their company to ignore the girls.

Have you seen or heard of this? I mean, in a restaurant sitting with friends or family and ignoring them for headphones? What is the point of eating together if you are going to do that?


  1. Now I try not to be judgmental and to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to think up explanations that would excuse seemingly inexplicable behavior: Maybe the girl is autistic or some such thing and the headphones help her to function in crowds? There's a young man who always sits behind us at Mass on Sundays who wears a huge pair of headphones. He often makes loud yipping sounds and other odd vocalizations. I don't know what his specific issue is, but I am sure the headphones are necessary for him to be able to deal with. Still,I suspect that the two teenagers you saw are part of a disturbing trend of parents who refuse to actually parent their kids because.... well, I'm not sure why but maybe they want to be liked and are afraid their kids won't love them if they actually set boundaries? In the same category I'd put the kids I've seen out to dinner with parents who spent the whole meal glues to their game boy or whatever the current brand of hand held electronic game device is. The thing is often parents are just as bad except they're glued to the Blackerries or iPhones or Droids.

  2. Certainly I can only know what I saw and don't know if there are any other circumstances that might reasonably explain the situation.

    But, as you say, there seems to be a trend afoot. And while the initial observations is of the behavior of teenagers, as they are not adults, the trend has to be traced back to the parents who, in this case, acted as though they didn't even have a child present. I mean, my gut reaction was how rude the girls seemed to be but, they are still relatively young. So my next reaction was how rude the adults seemed to be.

    I know it has been studied just how rarely many American families sit down to have a meal together, but this experience made me wonder, out of those meals, how many are the family members actually present to each other? And how are today's children deprived of a family environment by being permitted to shut themselves up in earphones or electronic game devices? What will we reap from such a generation?

    I know I struggle to not spend too much time on my computer, but I would think meal-time would be the easiest time to be social together, and even more so in a restaurant where you don't have all the distractions of home. I was just so surprised by what I saw. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was.

  3. I think in this time when we are so focused on "eating dinner together" we focus on the physicality. The eating and together part. So, we tell whomever, that we are going to go out to eat and we don't set up "rules" or guidelines for the meal. For families who are just starting this trend and have older children it is considerably difficult to cultivate what wasn't there from the beginning. Conversation. Interest. Attention. Affection. It's awkward and most parents don't want to put forth the effort so why would kids?

    I have a friend who says this is because of two-income families, but that is not true. It's a result of families who are more intent on putting each part of life in its own compartment including family and children, causing confusion when things spill over.

  4. Kristen, I agree with you- I don't think having a two income home necessitates such a trend. I'm not sure how compartmentalizing though plays in. I mean, if I compartmentalized dinner time, then that time for me is solely focused on eating as a family. Family and being together as a family would be my focus for that time. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you though. If you mean it as a result of families that are more intent on ignoring their children and brushing them off onto technology and then don't know what to do with them when they do sit down as a family - that makes sense to me. I also think your right about parents often not setting up much in the way of rules when it comes to eating a meal.

    I think a few sources might be responsible. I think lazy parenting is certainly a big part of it. But I wonder if our individual-focused, self-centered society plays into it. Headphones and game devices revolve around the user. Why does it not occur to a child to want to talk to their parents or siblings rather than use a technological device? Our society doesn't put much of a good emphasis on the family and doing things as a family. It makes me wonder just with what understanding of a family the new generation is growing up?

  5. I don't think a two-income home necessitates a trend; but I can certainly see how it could be a contributing factor.

    Plenty of moms who work also prioritize family time. My mom certainly did. She'd come home from work, cook dinner, and insist we all sit down to eat as a family. She'd ask us about our day and she and my dad would model how to be engaged. Our family dinners were often fun, times of laughter and jokes. Of course we all had sullen teenager days when we'd sulk at the table and refuse to participate, just eat our dinner then leave; but those were the exception not the rule.

    At the same time, I wonder if the reverse is true. How often do you see that kind of disengagement in families where the mom has chosen to stay home with the kids? (Not, of course, where mom not working means she's off being social while the nanny watches the kids.) It seems to me that where the parents have consciously decided to make the sacrifice of an income for the good of the children, there is less likely to be that kind of selfishness that ignores the children and allows the electronics to babysit them.

    Mainly, I think it's about parents who have given up on parenting because it's easier for them to focus on themselves. I suspect that at the root of it is a cultural attitude toward children as a lifestyle accessory. Our culture doesn't understand that parenting is about self-sacrifice.

    "Why does it not occur to a child to want to talk to their parents or siblings rather than use a technological device?"

    Because it doesn't occur to the parents to insist that they do so. Children learn what they are taught and also what is modeled for them. If the parents aren't willing to put forth the effort to force the good behavior and if they don't model it themselves, how on earth are the kids supposed to know that's what they should be doing?

  6. I'm not sure two incomes would make a difference. Either a parent will make a priority of family time or the parent won't, whether or not they work or not. Parents can choose to stay home for selfish reasons as well as unselfish ones. I realize it is a stereotype, but think of the women who want to watch soaps all day while their kids are at school or glued to the TV. Maybe that isn't common. I don't know. But I likewise don't think it is as common for mom to choose to stay home with the kids as it is for mom to go to work in the morning. I guess it could be a contributing factor but I don't see why it would be more so than any other possible contributing factor.

    I do think you are right that it comes down to parents simply not parenting. I've wondered though whether it is that the parents don't want to parent, are afraid to parent (and maybe lose a "best friend"?), or simply don't know how to parent? Certainly artificial contraception and abortion have led to this notion that you can pick your child, how many children and when you have them the way you pick a car or a pet. So I certainly agree children are often seen as an accessory but I've likewise seen parents ignore screaming children in a restaurant and call radio hosts expressing concern over their teenagers wild behavior but not want to punish them by taking away a cell phone.

    But I do think you hit the nail on the head. Parenting takes self-sacrifice and whether it is learning how to do it well, having the courage to do it, or wanting to do it, it always comes down to being drawn out of ourselves. Our culture doesn't like self-sacrifice in any form. Sacrifice of anything is always considered a negative.

  7. Sadly, my sister-in-law doesn't work (well now she does part-time but that's only been in the last couple of weeks) and sent my nephew to daycare every single day. And she sat home with a housekeeper and laid in bed and did nothing. Seriously. She has never in her life cooked a homemade meal and refuses to try. She won't even heat up a Stouffer's lasagna. She missed my nephew's entire t-ball game because she was in the parking lot having a conversation with someone she is friends with through her old job. So, there definitely sahms who cannot claim to be "parents" by the standards of old.

    When I was talking about compartmentalizing life, I meant that there are parents out there who are unable and unwilling to treat their families with the same attention they would work or friends or whatever. My sister-in-law deeply resents that she cannot go out with my brother-in-law like she used to but at the same time cannot stomach the thought of any other human being watching her child (including grandparents). Honestly, there is a whole generation of parents like her out there. People who are having children because they believe it is the next step in life and then refuse to learn that being a parent means you change, it's just a pit stop you need to check in for, not something serious.

  8. Kristen, oh I am so sorry about your SIL. She makes me think of Peggy Bundy in that TV show Married with Children except Peggy was very happy to watch Oprah and eat bonbons and it sounds like your SIL is very unhappy. It sounds like she is torn between what she thinks (and probably knows) she should do and what she still wants to do.

    I think the way you use compartmentalize I would use prioritize. I think you mean they don't give their family the priority of their time and attention they give to their work, friends, etc. I think I better understand what you mean. Prayers for your SIL.