Due to our work schedules, I do most of the cooking in our house on weeknights, and my wife, Kate, plans those meals. But when she works late or goes out of town, instead of planning a meal or surveying the pantry to come up with a dinner option, I usually survey the nearby restaurants that can serve me food in 10 minutes or less.
I realize it's akin to child neglect now to feed your kids greasy, processed food (especially among Clintonville types), but, well...it's easy, I like it, my kids like it and the havoc it wreaks on our digestive systems ensures we won't make a habit of it.
On one recent wife-less evening, I took the kids to Buffalo Wild Wings. Kate finds the act of tearing spicy, glistening slivers of chicken meat off the bone disgusting; I find it delicious. The kids were skeptical because we hadn't been there in a while, but once they walked in and saw that the number of TV screens far outnumbered the people in the restaurant, they warmed up.
"Daddy, I just saw a policeman chasing a guy with only underwear," said my 7-year-old, Liam, as he stared at one of the 19 screens in his sightline.
Before the hostess led us to our table, she turned to me. "Do you want tablets?" she asked.
"For the kids - you know, to keep them occupied?"
I hesitated. Did I really want the kids staring at small screens while surrounded by large screens all through dinner? And then I surrendered. "Sure."
The kids clutched their handheld devices, wide-eyed and jittery as they squashed zombies, popped digital popcorn, crashed cartoon cars and fought with ninjas.
"We should come here more often," Liam said before the food even arrived.
Buffalo Wild Wings' gaming platform is provided by a company called Buzztime. "Keeping customers entertained is our life's work," reads a Buzztime blog post titled Arcade Games: The Glue That Keeps Customers Longer. "The arcade games offer a wide variety of entertainment ideal for parents who want to keep an eye on their kids without having to spend the evening entertaining them."
Buzztime is good at what it does. My kids were thoroughly entertained. Aside from ongoing negotiations with Maggie, 5, about how many bites of mac 'n' cheese she had to eat and the occasional "700 points!" outburst, we didn't say much to each other before, during or after the meal. It was all I could do to get them to briefly put down the tablets while eating. They were consumed.
Eventually, after washing down my wings with a way-too-tall beer (I succumbed to that, too), I got my phone - my own handheld touchscreen - out of my pocket. And that was when I realized this dinner was providing a glimpse into what my kids often see when they look at me and lots of other adults as we stare, wide-eyed and jittery, at our phones. To a kid, thumb-typing in Gmail is no different than popping digital popcorn on a BW3 tablet.
Not long ago I saw family at a restaurant stack their phones at one end of the table. They left them piled there all during dinner. They conversed.
I'm not saying I'll never give in to the tablets again. Sometimes you need a break, and ninjas are kind of awesome, even if they're part of Buzztime's evil plan to make me a lazy parent. And greasy food is a fun Dad treat. But that pile of phones makes a lot of sense.
"I don't wanna say goodbye to my tablet," Liam said, moping after I paid the bill.
"I hate the food," Maggie said as we left, our bellies already churning. "But I love the tablets."
-Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer who highly recommends the Spicy Garlic and Asian Zing wing sauces.