Monday, February 27, 2012

It's not i-Family time

The other day, while having tea at Ya Kun, I noticed their motto: "The toast that binds". Sitting next to our table was a typical family, two parents and two children. The mother, who was in her 40s, was playing Bakery Story on her iPhone. Her children meanwhile sat quietly waiting for their toast to be served.
When the food arrived, everyone ate in silence and at the end of the meal, everyone started to work their finger muscles by swiping their iPhones.
In modern Singapore where most parents have to work, sometimes having sit-down family dinners is a luxury. Yet on the few occasions when the family does find the opportunity to have dinner together, I have noticed the ubiquitous presence of the iPhone or iPad.
Some parents use the iPhone as a pseudo-sitter for their two- or three-year-old child. They justify this by explaining that it keeps their children quiet. Others claim that they must log onto Bakery Story or else all the bread they have baked online would have burnt. Some reason that they must be contactable 24/7 or they might miss out on an important contract if they do not answer every email.
Professor Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, did a study recently and was worried that only one in five families sit down together. In America, they have also begun to discuss family values, and the professor said Americans cannot have family values if they do not even have family meals together.
But, in this i-generation of the iPhone, iPad and iPod, the purpose of a sit-down together is defeated if these devices of self-centred amusement (so aptly prefixed with 'I') become part of the family meal.
My family also finds it a challenge to eat together, as three of the older children are pursuing tertiary education and are seldom at home. So we would have late-night supper or early morning breakfast.
Sometimes friends and family join us, and one of the rules we firmly enforce is that these i-devices not be present at the table. I remember once requesting an acquaintance not to take any photos of the food - she had this irritating habit of stopping us from digging in when each dish was served because she insisted on uploading everything she ate onto Facebook.
Needless to say, we no longer share any meals, as she cannot eat if she does not post on Facebook and I will not eat if she does.
Imagine what it would be like having a meal without these i-devices. Our children might learn to see to others' needs instead of grabbing the food they like. They may learn to show respect to older members of the family as they wait their turn for the chicken, or invite their grandparents to eat.
Yes, they may fight over the otah, and that is where we can help them develop family values like sharing. They may even learn to have a decent conversation and hone their social skills.
During our family meals, the men and boys have to ensure that only after their mothers, sister and the youngest have taken their share, would they then take theirs. Some may say this is an archaic etiquette that is no longer relevant in this post-modern feminist era, but this is how we hope to produce gentlemen.
The girls, on their part, are expected to help prepare the meals, set the dishes and wash the plates alongside the boys. This is to ensure that the girls do not develop an entitlement attitude since the boys must let them pick first during the meal.
If we do not take steps to have proper family meals where there is laughter, interaction, exchange of news and information, I am afraid that all the effort to develop values in our children will fail, as we abdicate this vital function to the school, teachers and Ministry of Education.
Frances Ess is a mother of six.

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