The Endless Cell Phone Debate

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The Endless Cell Phone Debate

I practice what I preach. Which often doesn’t thrill my kids.

So this month, when my son started middle school, he was pretty sure he was getting a
phone. But he’s 12. And in sixth grade. And my rule – which my husband and I agreed upon
years ago and which I speak about fairly publicly given the data about screen use among kids – is that you don’t get a phone before you are 13. You don’t need it. Arbitrary cut off, sure. But laws like COPPA provided a safety rationale, and so that was the number we landed on.

My daughter waited until she was 13, both for her phone and to transfer schools. My
son may have swapped campuses a year earlier, but the phone wasn’t coming as an added
perk. In fact, we warned, he might not even be ready for one at 13.

I started to have doubts about my steadfastness this summer, as school approached and
I thought about the end of each school day. At their old school, my kids boarded a bus on
campus and decamped at our driveway – there really were no logistics to work out. In middle
school, though, they don’t ride the bus and pick up is a frenzy. Kids spill out of school, texting
their parents who navigate a maze of streets and parking spots to facilitate getting from school and onto the next thing. On the days when they stay late for sports or other extra curriculars, having that phone handy is a godsend. For me, that is. A typical text thread with my daughter goes something like this:

“Hey mom, I am ready”
“Great, meet me in front of the parking lot”
“Which one?”
“The one up the hill.”
“Ya” (Ya, it must be noted, is 2017 speak for “Yes, sounds good, thanks.”)

In fairness to him, my son was pretty sure he needed a phone. I disabused him of that
notion pretty quickly. Then he started in with a big sell. He wasn’t asking for a phone sooner in order to break our rule, but rather he moved schools one grade earlier than his sister and so this was how life was working out. That’s when I asked him: Given how you use, say, my iPad, if you were me, would you give you a phone?

He paused, looked me square in the eye, and said, “Nope. Fair point.” We both pictured
him laying on the floor of his bedroom, furiously playing games on whatever device he could lay his hands on.

The next week, there were a dozen different times that I wished he had a phone. During
the hideous post-school pick up. After a cross-country practice when I was pretty certain I had gone to the wrong park. That day he walked the four blocks from his school to his dad’s office, which doesn’t sound far except if you’re from LA and you know that Nobody Walks In LA.

Ultimately, we found a solution, which undoubtedly will make its way into my parenting
talks of the future. No, we didn’t buy him a phone. But we did get a Family Phone – a phone
that belongs to us (the parents) and lives in our room overnight. It goes into his backpack as he is exiting the car at school drop off and then stays in his locker all day (a school mandate which I love) until 3pm. He can call or text when it’s time to arrange pick up and then, pretty much the instant he gets in the car, he hands it back over to me. The phone is as stripped-down and dumb a smart phone as you can have: it has no apps and new ones are completely blocked; it has no internet access (blocked); it has no games (ya, they’re blocked, too). Basically, it has no version of fun.

I didn’t write this piece to show off how rational my kid is – trust me, he’s completely
normal and he doesn’t love this arrangement. Rather, I wrote it to make the point that even
people like me, who read all of the studies and preach to parents the value of delayed
gratification – not to mention the even greater value of delayed computer-in-the-palm-of-your kid’s-hand – waiver. It’s easy to hand out advice and much harder to follow it. I get it. I live it.

But it’s also nice to know that life isn’t necessarily all-or-none. I think that’s the easiest
thing to forget when you are a parent, probably because our kids are born negotiators and their jobs are to sway us. It turned out, there was a middle ground. There often is. Ya.