Cellphone etiquette at the dinner table. With kids.

I’m having a heck of a time coming up with coherent, logical and reasonable rules for cellphones in my family. The problem is, I like my cellphone and use it to keep in touch with my many friends and colleagues. There are times when it’s okay, of course, and other times — like driving — when it’s just verboten, but trying to figure out how to balance it or how to allot an appropriate amount of time for non-cell activity is proving rather tricky.

AT&T Survey: Texting at the Dinner TableEven the most basic of issues about having cellphones at the table during a meal ends up having footnotes or escape clauses. “I’m waiting to hear back about homework?” “We’re planning our evening, I need to stay on top of things.” “You told me to plan ahead, I’m planning ahead!”

My favorite, of course, is the phone on the lap, as if I wouldn’t notice the eyeballs lured to the glowing screen every 17 seconds. Like moths to a flame indeed…

Still, I find myself wrestling with it too and when I meet friends or colleagues, we often all have our cellphones sitting on the table, as if that next email message or text message is going to be earth-shattering and more important than any of the rest of us at the table.

If we’re all doing it, does the rudeness cancel out?


The basic rule is that when we sit down to do something together, cellphones are put away because the people you’re with are more important than the people on the other end of the phone line. How that works with my teen daughter when her boyfriend wants to text (read “waste countless hours on their banal chats” 🙂 ) is up for interpretation, but the basic rule should be easy to make work, right?

Except… except sometimes I want to have my phone out, and other times there are excuses of some varying level of believability that are tossed into the mix.

Meanwhile, on the AT&T Wireless site, they’re running a poll and the results reveal that most people think it’s rude to text while sitting at the table with others, as you can see, but the real question should have been “do you think it’s rude to text while at the table but do it on occasion anyway?” to reveal the inevitable hypocrisy that I think is built-in to the situation.

It’s only human nature: give us something that’ll show updates and notifications and we’re going to be glued to it waiting for something exciting to happen, right?

Heck, it took a while for us to actually have an agreed-upon “device curfew”, as I’ve written about before, where at a specified time (9pm on schoolnights, 10pm on weekends) they’re all powered down and left in the main area, not to be touched until the following morning on penalty of great and unpleasant consequences.

When A- (15) and I were on vacation, she made an impassioned and quite reasonable case for waiving the curfew and taking her phone in bed with her. Yeah. Ugh. But I always have my cellphone by my bedside table, so how is it any different?

Dear reader, what’s your take on this whole thing? Do you think it’s rude to have a cellphone on the table when you’re with others? What if they basically ignore it, glancing to keep an eye that there are no proverbial fires to put out? And what of children who are very much a part of the digital generation, with these devices melded into their skull directly?

I’m still trying to figure out a simple, coherent and enforceable policy that applies equally to everyone in the family. Even myself…

7 comments on “Cellphone etiquette at the dinner table. With kids.

  1. Havent taken time for your post, but my kids are 17 and 22. 17 is a hs senior; 22 is in college in Boston.

    My take: phones at dinner have three acceptable uses:

    1. At a restaurant when the food is taking WAY too long to come, with permission, or, if kids are fifth wheels at a good restaurant and adults want to sit for two hours after dessert and talk without the cops coming (and kids are under 16. Over 16, adults want to ask nosy questions about college, career and romance; answers are payment for the $40 meal kid has just consumed in two bites).

    2. At a festive meal as a way of including absent family who can’t be there any other way. This includes anything from texting absent sibling the funny thing the waiter just said to passing around a laptop at Thanksgiving dinner so everyone can meet the daughters new long-distance boyfriend. Could be a tablet, I guess.

    3. With parental permission, Googling some point of fact in a discussion or otherwise acquiring information that a PARENT has asked for, supplying said information and then stowing phone until further notice.

    The phone doesn’t come out again until the owner – rules apply to parents too; no fair sitting checking Twitter while kid sits wits phone stowed – leaves the table. At a restaurant, phones should generally not come out until folks are in the car, and then of course the driver doesn’t get his or hers out until the family gets home.

    Note that past a certain point in families, the driver is not necessarily a parent. How that every kid has a license, it almost never is in our house.

  2. Great question. I’ve found myself facing the same connundrum. Especially when I’m stuck in boring meetings at work that I don’t need to be at.

    However, from a family perspective I try to lead by example w/ the cellphone at the table. It’s out of reach and put on vibrate and I encourage my wife to do the same. Our kids are too young for phones just yet, but when they are I plan to enforce a strict device-free dinner time.

    If we can’t spend 30 minutes at the table together enjoying a meal and each other’s company w/out compulsively “waiting for something exciting to happen” then I think that’s an indicator of being codependent on technology and some refocusing is necessary.

  3. I have no kids, so this is just what I think. Hopefully, it comes across better than a childless person saying “my child would never…”.

    The general guidelines you listed are good, and I agree with what Mary Baum wrote above. But it’s really more than phone etiquette. Work, phone, email, twitter, facebook, TV, hobbies. All of these need to be tempered.

    It’s never too early to set AND MODEL the standard of expected behavior. As kids grow older, they want to explore and demonstrate their independence. You don’t want to necessarily make it easier for them to shut you out.

    How important is it that your kids know how important they are to you? What is more important than your kids? [Note: I am not advocating that everything is about the children. They’re a part of the family, not the point of the family.]

    There are exceptions/emergencies, of course, and I think children can accept those when they occur. But whatever you *routinely* take care of is what your children will learn is important to you, and in turn that will shape the things that become important to them.

    Ultimately, kids can only see how much love you showed them, not how much you intended to show them.

  4. I do trust all the concepts you’ve introduced to your post. They’re very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for beginners. May you please extend them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

  5. My wife asked me to look up “cell phone etiquette at the dinner table?” on a google search, and I got reading this site. We are stuggling with a Foster Daughter that is turning 16 in two weeks, and thinks that independence means that she can pretty much come and go as she pleases….which brings us to the cell phone. A week ago I got exasperated when the texting at the table got to be too much. I asked her to not text at the table before, but this time was more like “I’ve ASKED YOU TO PUT THAT DAMN PHONE AWAY!” I now feel bad, although I am not sure if I should (not looking for councelling, quite yet), and it makes me think, WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON!…..I mean I know that I cannot change the course of craziness that society is on, but at what point do we realize that we don’t need these things, especially at the dinner table. No one has conversations any more….and the ones we do are on facebook, and social media, which are really not conversations at all. We have to stop making our Phones and/or computers GODS and gain control of this technology, because really it has gained control of us!

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