Back in February, while traveling to Boston, I went to a Panera to grab dinner and catch-up on some email.
I’m sitting there, finishing up my sandwich, with my laptop open and my ear buds in, when two dads sit down at nearby tables, each with one child sitting directly across from me.
I switched from “email mode” to “observation mode” by turning down my music in my earbuds and popping open Simplenote to write down some observations.
What happened was absolutely fascinating.
Two Dads, Two Meals, Two Outcomes
Dad & Son A
Dad A came across as a businessman. He was young, maybe 30 years old, he wore a black overcoat, nice shoes, and a suit. Somewhere between work and Panera he’d taken off his tie. When he sat down at a small two-person table he took off the overcoat and hung it on the back of the chair, but left his jacket on . My guess is that he worked in finance or at a local bank. When he was in line and before their food came he was fiddling with his iPhone, texting and scrolling through email. He seemed rushed and a little anxious.
Son A was about 6-7. He had that little boy lisp sometimes when he spoke, he talked a little too loud and pretty much non-stop. He was wearing a superhero-themed jacket and matching hat which he took off when he sat down. He was clearly excited to be with his dad. He constantly stole looks at his dad. He sat opposite his dad in a chair that felt too big and fidgeted a little with the pager until their food came. (While dad fidgeted with his phone.)
When their pager went off, dad got up by himself and came back with a tray. Each had a sandwich, soup, and a soda.
Just as they were settling down to eat, dad put his phone on the table next to the tray and about 5 seconds later it buzzed. He looked at the text then turned the phone off, slid it into his jacket pocket, moved the tray closer to him and picked up his sandwich.
They stayed about 20 more minutes, eating their food, and having a conversation about a vacation Son A had just been on with his mom. It became clear that father and son didn’t live together. Dad A was very positive and affirming to Son A about the trip, his mom, and just about everything. Son A talked nearly non-stop, only pausing for a few seconds when Dad A reminded him to “eat your food, buddy.”
When they were done eating they left promptly (didn’t linger) through the front door, towards the main street and sidewalk.
Dad & Daughter B
Dad B came across as a contractor. He was in his 40s, wore a poofy, worn ski jacket and blue jeans. His hair was a bit wild as if he’d been wearing a stocking hat and just took it off. His most distinguishing characteristic was a Bluetooth ear piece that flashed every few seconds to symbolize that it was on. He sat down at a two-person booth right in front of me with his daughter. He was facing me. He spoke at a near whisper with his daughter but really loudly, in a staccato, when on the phone… which seemed to ring every 5-6 minutes.
Daughter B was a stereotypical teenage girl with her dad, my guess is 14-15 years old. Her hair was in a pony tail, she wore jeans and a solid-color top, she took off her jacket and stuffed it into the corner of the booth. And even though she weighed less than 100 pounds she sat down with a thud and the whole booth moved. Sitting at the table she spun the pager repeatedly while her dad was on the phone. He was looking past her and she was looking past him. About a minute into this staring and spinning routine dad got annoyed and grabbed the pager. She sighed audibly loud enough for me to hear and pulled out her phone.
Dad B talked on the phone and took calls throughout the meal. Daughter B looked at her phone most of the time, texting and navigating apps. When he wasn’t on the phone, Dad B tried to make small talk about school and plans for the weekend but Daughter B mostly shrugged him off of gave one-word answers.
Largely, they both ate in silence towards one another. They were there about 35 minutes total, Dad B took longer to eat because he was talking on the phone a lot. Daughter B ate her meal quickly, took her plate to the bin, refilled her soda, and patiently waited for Dad B.
Later that night I looked back at my notes and wrote this conclusion based on what I observed:
Both dads got in their cars, looked at their child, and thought the same thing: “I just had dinner with my kid.”
Both probably felt noble about it, having fulfilled something they know they need to do. But one had dinner with his child, actively participating and giving his full attention while the other was in his child’s presence, never really having a conversation, both left visibly frustrated at one another.
While both dad’s felt equally noble about their dinner out with their kids– both children likely left feeling nearly the opposite about the time with their dads.
Since February, I’ve shared this story dozens of times to illustrate the 6th principle about using social media in a healthy way: You need to talk about this stuff.
All audiences are interested in this story– people always lean forward a little in their posture.
But what’s intriguing to me is the difference in response based on age.
When I share this story with adults they sink into their chairs, guilty, perhaps a little embarrassed because they know they’ve been Dad B but desire to be Dad A.
But when I share this story with teenagers? Sometimes they spontaneously applaud. It incites them. It’s as if they are hearing articulated something they’ve longed to hear from an adult.
Teenagers are often blamed for technology getting in the way of their relationship with adults. And sure, there is some measure of truth to that. But the simple fact is that parents are also to blame.
When I ask teenagers about this story, they tell me that it excites them because no one seems to point out that adult’s overuse, abuse, and inappropriately use technology, too. And it’s a problem they feel voiceless about.
So What Do We Do?
I find the gulf of misunderstanding that often exists between parent and child about social media exists because we simply don’t talk about it. Parents create and enforce rules, sometimes with great intentions, and other times rather arbitrarily.
And teenagers wish the rules that applied to them also applied to their parents.
Misunderstanding based on a lack of communication, assumptions, or even previous failures dog-piles into frustration.
The answer is talking, not about rules, but about how to use technology in a way that’s healthy and agreeable for the whole family.
If you are interested in talking to your teenager about technology and social media in a helpful, fact-based way… I’ve co-written a short book with Mark Oestreicher called A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media. It’s available at Amazon.com or at The Youth Cartel’s online store.