I regret giving cell phones to my kids, but not for the reasons you think
I was pretending to watch Paw Patrol with my 3 year old daughter when my iPhone rang. My neighbor had texted me from the college bus stop to let me know that my eldest son, a 13-year-old eighth grader, was missing.
With adrenaline coursing through my veins, my world suddenly stopped and shrunk. “Nope?” I answered quickly, then typed Mason’s cell number into my phone. No answer. Straight to voicemail. Twice, then three times.
I called my neighbor, who was still at the bus stop with the rest of our children, including my second son. She suggested that maybe Mason had missed the bus, but it had been an hour since school left; he would have contacted me by then. After interviewing the other children, we determined that Mason had indeed taken the bus home but had missed his stop, likely because he had fallen asleep.
I called the school and got the county school bus office number. The operator there called my son’s bus driver, and although she couldn’t see him on the bus at first – signaling that my heart was falling to the depths of my stomach – she stopped and searched the seats. She finally found him curled up and asleep in a back row.
I thought I might throw up even as relief washed over me and I was hit with all sorts of emotions: Disbelief, because who knew I still had to worry about my 13-year-old son in the school bus ? Gratitude for my neighbor who took care of my child. Anger and love, almost in equal amounts, for the boy who nearly gave me a heart attack.
“You didn’t answer your phone!” I exclaimed indignantly when my stray child was finally in my car and I had hugged him tightly. “It’s dead,” he replied nonchalantly. “Relax, mom. I just fell asleep. It’s not serious.
“Your new bedtime is 7:00 until you turn 40,” I said through gritted teeth. “Maybe you don’t need a phone. What good is it if it doesn’t work at times like these?”
That’s why he has a cell phone, after all. My college students go to a magnetic school 30 minutes from their home. The school encourages students to bring devices — but not necessarily phones — and they can only use them during designated hours for internet research, during lunch, and before and after school. Teachers often use text-based apps to communicate with students and their parents, and assignments and assignments are posted online.
When my kids went to college, I gave them cell phones before they could even ask for them. Even though they carpool to school and take the bus home most days like clockwork, I wanted to be able to contact them in case something went wrong, or in case they needed to tell me about a change in their transportation. I thought of cell phones as safety nets: they made me feel better about sending them to college, especially across town.
Many of the issues that parents worry about when considering using cell phones for their kids haven’t been big issues for us, at least for now: my boys aren’t on social media. They rarely text their friends. They didn’t send any nude photos of themselves or other people, a rule we clarified the minute we put the phones in their warm little hands. They didn’t search for porn (or if they did, they cleverly covered their tracks).
Our biggest issues so far have been keeping phones charged properly, educating kids about the apps that are draining our data and costing us a billion dollars at the end of the month, and keeping them from playing Crossy Road until early morning on school nights. (see above re: falling asleep on the bus).
However, after my son’s epic bus ride home and the resulting 30 minutes of terror, I had an epiphany about my parenting and my cell phone with college kids. By giving them cell phones, I had inadvertently placed an expectation and burden on my children that I hadn’t felt until I was 30: that they could and should be contactable at any time of the day.
Because I had a childhood just a few miles from where my own children grow up, made up of long bike rides and long walks, lost afternoons playing alone in my own garden and walking home from the bus stop with friends without my mom contacting me, I should have realized that by giving my kids phones I was ending that kind of independence for them.
For example, when I was growing up and feeling sick at school, I had to go to the school clinic and talk to a nurse to find out if I should go home. Now my kids just text me between classes if they feel sick. “I think I have a fever. Come get me ? I’ve noticed that the receptionist at the front desk never seems surprised when I show up unannounced and tell her that my child is sick and I’ve come to take him home, even though it’s new for everyone except me and my child.
On more than one occasion, I have used the county school system’s internet portal to check my children’s grades in the middle of the day. “What happened during that geometry test?? I’m texting my eighth grader. “MOM! NO TEXTS DURING SCHOOL!” comes the answer. Oops, of course.
I can text my son to find out if he was on the school volleyball team before coming home. I can call him from another part of the house to ask him if he wants pizza or spaghetti for dinner. If they come home late from the bus stop, I can text them and ask them where they are. This is all very effective, but did I take anything from my children in the name of my own convenience and assurance that they are instantly accessible (and also safe, undamaged, uninjured, unkidnapped…) ?
I am not a Luddite. I like technology, I like the Internet. I run my home with Amazon Prime, I’m blindly loyal to all things Apple, I can be found on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I completely agree. But I have a love-hate relationship with my own enslavement to the same technology I depend on so much: my husband and I are almost never unreachable, never disconnected, never unable to respond, whether to family, friends or work. . It’s our fault, but it’s also a common expectation in a society where we can now wear watches to alert us to news from cell phones in our pockets that allow us to work from anywhere and anytime.
It is too late for me and my husband; there is no turning back. But for my children? It was time. I realize now that I wanted them to be reachable at all times not only for their safety, but for mine; I wanted reassurance in the form of a sort of digital umbilical cord. Maybe it was selfish and short-sighted.
The truth is, my kids don’t need to be reachable all the time – even for me – to be safe. As our experience with the college bus showed me, a cell phone is not a safety net, but other human beings are. My kids carpool with other parents I trust. They drive home in a school bus full of other kids and a driver with a phone. They are in school all day with teachers and administrators charged with their care and well-being. They go to training with coaches who can help them if they need it. Yes, I like the idea of being able to call or text them at will, but at what cost for my children? Do my children deserve to be able to get lost sometimes, to figure things out for themselves, to allow the network of adults around them to do their jobs and be their safety net until come back to me?
I have two younger children, and while I can’t promise what I’ll do about them when they reach college age, for now I hope to wait. They will have access to devices like iPads – they already do. They might even be able to send text messages. But no one expects someone to always have an iPad on them. It’s a different vibe and expectation than a phone.
I spend a lot of time telling my kids to look forward to certain things: R-rated movies. Adult video games. New phones instead of old family devices. Driver’s license. I tell them that part of the growing experience is that you don’t get everything at the same time and when you want it. But as we acquire the trappings of adulthood, we also acquire the burdens. I accidentally gave one to my kids a little earlier than I expected. There is plenty of time for them to be on watch for the world. Until then, it is up to me to relieve them of this duty until absolutely necessary.
© 2016 The Washington Post