The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: How sad is it when parents stare at their phones?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
5 min

Hello Carolyn: Went to breakfast today at a family restaurant. Sat in booth next to a mom and dad and two boys about 8 and 10 years old. The parents each had their cellphones on. The boys had no cellphones. The only time the mom looked up from her phone was to order and once in a while, when she ate, to speak to her husband. The only time the dad looked up from his phone was when he ordered or when he looked at his wife’s phone.

There was no communication between the parents and the kids. I watched the kids eat their fruity face pancakes and not talk to their parents or each other through the whole meal.

I am very very saddened by this. What I wouldn't give for a chance to have a breakfast like that again with my boys when they were small. We had such fun when our family went out to breakfast.

Just can’t get my mind around this. What has happened to families? I would appreciate your thoughts.

— Concerned Mom

Concerned Mom: That certainly paints a depressing picture.

Except we don’t know what it’s a picture of.

You believe it’s a picture of phone-addicted parents and the disconnected children who speak for all modern families in their silence.

And you may be right.

But your snapshot says nothing of where they came from, where they’re going, why they’re on phones, who they’re becoming. You’ve drawn conclusions utterly out of context.

I also note an absence that’s often distressingly present at family-restaurant tables where children don’t get their adults’ attention: desperate ploys to get their adults’ attention.

So maybe what you saw as neglect was the eating of meals in peace by two nurtured, well-behaved, listened-to children.

Maybe breakfast wasn’t the family event, but the break between events.

Maybe they were on the last day of a vacation, relieved not to talk.

Maybe the parents were tying up loose ends at their jobs to clear the rest of the day for their boys. Maybe they agreed, “You let us work a bit, we give you fruity face pancakes, then we go on an adventure.”

Maybe the parents were looking up children’s museums or walking trails.

Maybe their phone time would yield the name of a restaurant that pleases all ages and is halfway between the two road games their kids were playing with their different teams that day, so they could make a day of it together.

Are you still certain of what you saw?

Are you willing, at least, not to be?

Here’s something I can say with confidence. Judginess is more reliably alienating, and less potentially helpful, and less open to interpretation, than phones at breakfast.

If you are worried about the state of families right now — justifiably, they are navigating a lot, the multifaceted mind-fork of smartphones included — then I encourage you to channel that worry into the kind of supportive connection you wish to see.

If you can genuinely leave your judging impulses out in the car, then engage a family like this with kind words. “I know I’m butting in, but I noticed your boys have beautiful manners.” That fits what you witnessed, right? Or find another compliment that’s genuine. Invite them to see the moment lovingly through your eyes instead of condemning their failure to see it themselves.

If that feels weird and intrusive, then parlay your sad breakfast-booth energy into support for young families you know more about.

Again, by “support” I mean paying attention and asking thoughtful questions and helping with what they see as their struggles, not what you see as their failings — and even then, only if it’s welcome.

Otherwise just bring kindness, an open mind, a humble awareness of what you don’t know, and, please, on behalf of every parent in that booth, the good sense to recognize that if your child-rearing experience predates smartphones, then you don’t actually know what you’d have done in their place.

You just. Don’t.

Hi, Carolyn: If I have a bad day and I vent to my spouse, how helpful is that for myself and for her? I feel slightly better, but if she’s having a great day, then I worry about bringing her down.

— Luke

Luke: By caring how she feels, you’re already on the maritally helpful end of the scale. Lucky spouse.

To stay there, however, you’ll need to ask about her feelings directly. For one thing, it depends on what you mean by “vent.” Droning the same long story at her about faceless workpeople is very different from brisk storytelling about colleagues she knows. The latter can help a spouse feel involved in your life.

And, are these just nuisances you’re venting about, or do they pose threats to your livelihood?

Does she shrug stuff off, or perseverate at 3 a.m.?

There’s just no pat answer here.

Except: Ask. “Does it bother you when I vent like this? It helps me and I’m grateful to you for it, but I don’t want to drag you down.”