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Family eating TV dinner on couch

TV Dinners and Coloring Outside the Parenting Lines

As we stood at my kitchen counter, my friend said, “You ought to write about it. Makes you seem human, you know?”

So, in the spirit of self-disclosure inspired by articles I read recently by parents who admitted their shortcomings, I’m doing the same. One father wrote about missing too many dinners with his family. A fellow pediatrician wrote about what happened when her daughter went to bed with an iPad.

Here’s my confession: Sometimes my kids and I eat dinner in front of the TV.

When I was a kid, I watched very little TV (for many years my mother and I didn’t even have a TV) except when I enjoyed summers with my grandparents. After spending the days outside in the woods or along the river, I was allowed to watch TV at night. My grandmother was a well-educated, cultured Southern woman who believed in table manners and personal style (I spent a lot of time walking around with a book on my head for her).

So, in retrospect, it surprises me that during those summer vacations we ate nearly every evening in front of the television. We ate our dinner on china, with silver, but – while watching TV. We watched old stuff like Hogan’s Heroes, M*A*S*H, Hee Haw (seriously), The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Lawrence Welk (they were my grandparents after all!), and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Was this wasted time? Were dinners without conversation a loss? I think perhaps not. Instead I remember that what we watched united us through shared references. We had plenty to talk about after the shows were over.

So maybe my friend was right when she told me to stop worrying. The occasional dinner in front of the television without attention to table manners and conversation won’t damage the kids.

As a pediatrician and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, I’m passionate about helping parents navigate their family’s use of media in a healthy way. I recommend sitting around a table and talking with your kids for a meal every day. I support the AAP’s recommendations that we turn off screens as much as possible – especially at the dinner table. Dinners eaten together as a family are important to me. Conversation is a priority.

However, parenting is a messy business, and we’re indeed human. Parents need to forgive themselves when they don’t always follow the rules and advice given to them – when they sometimes miss meals, give kids iPads, or eat dinner in front of a screen. Having the TV on isn’t ideal, but perhaps my kids will benefit from my bending the rules occasionally – and not being too hard on myself if I’m not parenting perfectly.

After the show is over, my kids and I usually have some incredible conversations about what we watched. How I Met Your Mother certainly provides loads of teachable moments!

This article was previously published on July 7, 2018

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