As for substance use, the results were similar — for girls, anyway. Those who regularly had family dinner, with or without the TV on, used alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana at significantly lower rates. For boys, however, on this point there was no observed advantage. Neumark-Sztainer told me that across all their research, they’ve found that the benefits of family dinner accrue more to girls than boys.
Still, the overall benefits for both sexes were big enough that she made family dinner a top priority for her own three sons and daughter, who are now grown. She kept electronics away from the table, as well as contentious topics like grades and college applications, weight and body image. Whenever those issues popped up, she would swat them like a fly hovering over her potato salad, saying, “Oh, we can talk about this after dinner.” When things remain light, that boosts the chances of easy conversation rather than pointed fingers.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT to keep the lines of communication open? Basically, we want to believe that our kids, when they encounter a complicated moral or ethical decision that has profound implications, will feel comfortable enough, and trust us enough, to seek our counsel. So much of parenting is preparing them and us for those pivotal moments.
Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle has become a valuable Cassandra warning about the dangers of letting computers take over our lives. That’s an interesting role for someone who works on the Mount Olympus of technological innovation. “The computer revolution wasn’t supposed to be about giving people more facts,” Turkle, the author of Alone Together, told me. “As a parent, my authority comes from wisdom, from being able to put facts together and then help my child think through things.” Technology, she stressed, is just an actor, “and maybe it’s an actor that needs to be subdued and put in its place.”
That’s sensible advice. But it doesn’t mean technology should be kicked off the stage. Unless we’re prepared to trade in our Toyotas for horse-drawn buggies and move to rural Pennsylvania, we’ve got to deal with the digital world. And it can offer some unanticipated upsides. Studies suggest that teenagers who use social media have enhanced self-esteem and friendship quality (although there are clear drawbacks, such as vulnerability to cyber-bullying and unwanted sexual advances).
Dr. Michael Rich, a Harvard pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, argues that we should treat technology like nutrition, like the food we put on the table for our family dinners. It’s all about making good choices.
When I described my experience of stumbling onto Khan Academy after being unable to field my daughter’s question about the distributive property, Rich said that approach turns out to be the wisest course. Not the stumbling part, of course, but rather letting go of the pretense that we have all the answers and instead being willing to hunt for them with our children. While that bearded father in the Google commercial might be able to get away with playing the omniscient role for his young son, that’s not going to work for a seventh-grader. Besides, that dad failed to answer his son’s actual question about how far Mars is from Earth, instead parroting Google’s answer for the Red Planet’s average distance from the sun.
One of the best ways to keep communication with our kids strong, Rich told me, is to use technology to promote the exchange of ideas and knowledge. I thought back to a recent conversation I’d had with my seventh-grader when we were driving somewhere. The ride had begun like so many others during the early teen years, where I ask lots of detailed questions and get lots of monosyllabic replies. Then a Bruno Mars song came on the radio. I asked my daughter whether she’d seen the YouTube clip of his hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, when he played an intern for Pandora forced to impersonate a series of singers after the Internet music service’s power went down. When she said no, I handed her my iPhone so she could check it out. That ended up sparking a wide-ranging conversation about music, other funny stuff she’d found on the Internet, and eventually what was going on in school.
Sometimes the kids are the ones doing the initiating, such as when that same daughter showed me a YouTube clip of a young girl doing a superhuman 54 pirouettes in a row. That led to an interesting discussion between us about prodigies and lost childhoods. Meanwhile, my fifth-grade daughter decided she wanted to teach herself how to put together slick PowerPoint presentations, choosing my life story as her subject just so she’d have some content to fiddle with. That prompted her to ask a host of fresh questions about family history. In every one of those cases, newfangled technology served as the trigger for old-fashioned talk. Continued...