How far should books go to keep the kids entertained at the table?

Is it appropriate to distract kids with narrated e-books in restaurants?

Graham Farrar says he got the idea for iStoryTime – narrated e-books for tots – while searching for ways to keep his daughter entertained while waiting for food in a restaurant.

During my years working as a restaurant critic, I used to bring a few books along for my toddler son, to help keep him settled and engaged on the occasional nights he joined me for work. So you’d think I’d be the target audience for “iStoryTime”: narrated e-books inspired by the company founder’s need to entertain his daughter until the food arrived when they were dining out.

Instead, I’m joining the legions of cranky restaurant-goers weighing in on what is and isn’t appropriate for children at the table.

Founder Graham Farrar got the idea for the narration app, designed for a 2-year-old, because his iPhone didn’t have the right content and he didn’t want to tote a bag of books to a restaurant, said the Wall Street Journal. The app works on iPhones, iPads, and iPods, and the books include adaptations of "Shrek,"
"Transformers," and other less commercial titles.

Narrated e-books … for 2-year-olds … in a restaurant?

Now, kids in restaurants are a loaded topic at any time. I recently suggested in an interview that we hear a lot about obnoxious, screaming kids in restaurants, but they’re not actually as common a blight as chat board complainers would have us believe. No one agreed with me.

But even in my relaxed view – maybe especially in my relaxed view – handing kids an electronic device at a restaurant creates more of a disruption than it solves. Instead of having to read a book, bulky or not (is it really too onerous to toss a few Little Golden Books or board books into the diaper bag you’re already carrying?), or to keep kids engaged in conversation, or even to walk them outside if they really can’t keep quiet, handing them a glowing screen (and, I hope, a pair of earphones to avoid broadcasting the latest Transformers battle to the next table) walls them off from the social connections that are part of why we go to restaurants in the first place. If we’re not going to interact with kids, that is time to leave them home with a babysitter. That’s where my 4-year-old is when he’s quietly hypnotized by his 'Magic Tree House" books on CD. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to hand him a CD player and a pair of headphones at the table after ordering the steak frites.

I admit my personal settings might be a little skewed. While I don’t find screaming or Cheerio-flinging acceptable, I’m not bothered by the sound of normal children’s conversations when eating out. And I don’t see anything rude about kids or adults reading a physical book at the table, though my own mother discouraged me from doing that in restaurants when I was a kid.

But a narrated book? It sounds as distracting as handing them a cell phone and telling them to make a call – a restaurant practice that I usually find more distracting than anything a kid is doing anyway.

What do you think? Do you read books in restaurants? Are e-books, or narrated books, any less socially acceptable?

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at

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