Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Recently, several popular magazines have published articles lamenting the loss of the “family meal.” Research suggests that less than half of all families eat three or more meals a week together. According to experts, there are multiple forces behind this loss of family time including the invention of the microwave, the intrusion of television, and the challenge of trying to coordinate conflicting schedules.
Whatever the cause, the effect has been palpable. For me, the loss of the family meal is one more example of how children in America are being deprived of precious opportunities to learn social skills. After all, a whole host of interaction skills are actually learned at the dinner table. While chatting over chops, kids learn everything from how to make a strong point without offending others to the best way to get Mom or Dad to agree with them. Parents may not directly talk about such things, but they do provide a 3D, live model every time they talk.
Now, if you couple the loss of the family meal with the horrific impact video games, TV, ear phones, and most other electronic doodads are continuing to have on routine human interaction, you might conclude that each new generation of children will enter adulthood knowing less about how to master a crucial conversation than did their own parents.
This claim may seem ridiculous in light of the fact that with each passing day scientists discover more about the origins of the universe, the nature of subatomic material, and how to mike your kid in the school play without using a single wire. We live in the world of such amazing advancements in scientific knowledge, how could anyone conclude that our social skills, or any other skills for that matter, are worse than those demonstrated by previous generations? Think about it. Our parents don’t know how to program a VCR. In fact, they still use a VCR. What could such obsolete drones know that we don’t know?
To answer this question, read anything written by Thomas Jefferson. Or for that matter, glance at a sampling of the letters written by civil war soldiers. Hundreds of years ago people wrote letters so eloquently and with such apparent ease that you have to wonder if we don’t sound like bumbling fools in comparison. Apparently not everything our generation does is superior to the work of our predecessors. Which brings me back to my point. Along with letter writing I nominate social skills as a prime candidate for something that also may actually be growing worse with time.
Let’s assume the following. We can and do teach our children, nieces and nephews, and neighborhood kids things when we talk to them. But in order to be teaching we have to be talking. Sitting next to people and sending out Karma doesn’t count. When you talk about what’s right and wrong, you teach values. When you talk about the dangers of fast food, you teach nutrition. And when you talk about how to ask a girl or guy out, you teach social skills. Actually, when you talk about anything you teach social skills because how you talk makes up a big part of all things social.
But people don’t talk so much any more. That’s why I’m so worried about what’s going on today. There was a time when farmers and trades people worked side-by-side with their sons and daughters for most of the day. And as they worked they talked. At the end of the day they often sat on the porch and discussed the weather and politics. And you don’t have to go back to nineteenth-century rural America to see how things have changed. Fifty years ago I was invited by my parents into the kitchen to play games with them and their parents—something they did a lot. In our household it was a rite of passage to be invited to the kitchen table—where we talked and talked and talked.
And what did I learn from all this discourse? The very first time I sat at the table I learned that my mom could call my dad a “rat” (the cool term of the day) and get away with it, but when I called my grandmother a rat, it didn’t fly. Game by game, conversation by conversation, I learned about the complexity of engaging in playful debate or even serious discord. I learned by watching and doing. Once again, I was provided this valuable opportunity because members of our family met and talked for hours on end.
Nowadays we don’t sit next to each other to eat food or play games as often as we did in the past. We certainly don’t work side-by-side for years on end. Even when we ride together in a car (today’s big chance to sit next to each other where there’s little to do but talk) we’ve learned how to stick a video monitor into the ceiling so kids can be instructed by the likes of Pixar and Disney—nice enough folks, but they’re not us; and they don’t throw children into three-dimensional, two-way interactions.
Boys and girls of my generation also learned a lot about negotiations, arguing, and small talk by playing board games together. Now your average kid spends dozens of hours a week either playing a video game on his or her own or playing with a partner who does little more than manipulate pixels in parallel. When it comes to video games, alone or in pairs, the players don’t talk much.
We also used to converse at the sock hop as we slow danced to the Silhouettes. Now dances and concerts are so loud that it pretty much eliminates talking. Courting teenagers of years gone by went on long walks, flew kites, rode tandem bikes, and all the while they talked. Now the most common date is to go to a movie where couples are pummeled with surround sound—turning a social event into a passive, almost wordless experience.
Watch as today’s families gather during the holidays for what should be a perfect opportunity to interact. Adults gather around the playoff game where they shout in unison, teenagers skulk off to the game-room where they push levers in unison, and small kids toddle off to the room with the third TV and watch cartoons in unison. We’re moving from an analogue society (and with it, a dialogue society) to a dangerously passive, less verbal, digital one.
Okay, it’s not all doom and gloom. Fortunately, there are many people who, no matter the changes in technology, have found ways to constantly engage their friends, family, and children in face-to-face conversation. For example, they’ve learned to be flexible with dinner time—making it feasible for everyone to gather around the table at once. And then when they do gather to break bread, they turn off the TV and jump into conversations where they teach lessons in nutrition, politics, and as I’ve been suggesting all along, social sensibility.
Beating the digital demon away from the gate requires more than eating together. I for one have found it challenging to locate venues where I can talk one-on-one with my own grandchildren. At big family gatherings (the venue of choice), kids hang out with kids, and who wants to fight that? So I now schedule alone time with them where I don’t have to compete with their peers.
Equally important, when we are together in a big mob and should a grandchild climb on my lap with one of the children’s books we keep at the ready, I never pass up the chance to read to him or her. But not without some sacrifice. After all, how many times can you read The Cat in the Hat and still enjoy it? It turns out it’s a much smaller number for me than it is for my grandkids. Nevertheless, I read a book every single time they ask and then I talk about it because I want to be in their lives and not merely next to their lives. This don’t-pass-up-a-chance-to-talk rule also applies to kids’ games such as Chutes and Ladders and Cootie.
When it comes to the older set, my grown children still love to gather at our home and play Trivial Pursuit. During their college years it was a quest to see if they could beat their old man. Now that putting me in my place isn’t as challenging, they still like to gather and play and talk. This too has lost some of its appeal to me as my aches and pains beg to be pampered in a Barcalounger. Nevertheless, when my kids show up for a game I turn off the TV and step up to the pursuit of trivia—because I want to be in my children’s lives and not merely next to them.
The time will come soon enough when my adult children and I will indeed be next to each other much like my wife now sits next to her mother in a rest home. But for now, while I still can be in and not next to their lives, I’ll engage in healthy dialogue every chance I get. And when we casually chat together we’ll continually learn new things, enjoy each other’s presence, pass our family values back and forth, and in the middle of all of it, we’ll hone our social skills. Heaven only knows we need all the work we