March 27, 2013
Question for readers: Is this the new style of family dining?

Last night we visited a pretty decent neighborhood restaurant and bar. It's more casual than upscale, but it's a serious enough place that you would expect good behavior and manners from the customers.

That's pretty much what we found, though we spotted one family of four behaving in a way I just found bewildering. The parents were in their mid to late-40s. The kids were about 9 (a girl) and 6 or 7 (a boy). The parents ordered a couple of beers. Dad looked at his phone several times, reading something while mom sat there. But the kids, they both had full headphones on and had their own iPads. They were immersed in their own little worlds.

I couldn't tell what the girl was watching, but the boy was on Netflix and was watching a movie. The parents never looked at them and never said anything. The two kids never looked at the parents and never exchanged words.

While the behavior troubled me, it wasn't disruptive, and it certainly wasn't any of my business. But I wanted to bring it up here and get some feedback.

Is this normal? OK family time? Unacceptable? Have these parents simply given up and have come to rely on iPads to babysit so they can go out and enjoy a plate of pasta and a beer?

Families like this, right or wrong, are missing out on crucial experiences that can shape memories and strengthen relationships for all concerned. A night out at a restaurant is about sharing and connecting -- not only with one another but with the restaurant staff and maybe other customers. It's a public space, and we're supposed to behave differently in such settings.

Indeed, I can still remember dinners with the family -- the great ones, fun ones, botched ones, the ones where I had to get dressed up. They all mean plenty these days, and none of them happened while I was wearing headphones.

Trips to restaurants are also a learning experience for kids -- how to talk to strangers, how to order food, how to use good manners. These lessons sink in. They shape behavior and build character. When these kids are out on their own, will they even understand what it means to be in a public space and behave accordingly?

Let us know what you think.

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