Mornings at my house can be rough. With three girls ranging in age from preschooler to teen, there’s always a mad rush to serve up and gulp down breakfast, make lunches, find socks, gather homework, and eke out a “good morning” without growling. Throw in the emotional turmoil of a bad hair day, the anxiety around an upcoming test, or hormone-induced grumpiness and the most innocent words from me can turn my already wary teen daughter into a full-blown mess.
“Your ride will be here in about five minutes,” I call out from the kitchen. I try to keep my tone as neutral as possible even though the time crunch is starting to stress me out.
“Don’t you think I know what time it is?” my daughter replies sharply from her doorway. I stand at the counter slicing apples, rattled and fuming. She emerges three minutes later, throws together her lunch, swings her heavy backpack over her shoulder, and grabs the bagel and cream cheese I’ve made her to go. No “Thanks, Mom.” No eye contact. No kiss goodbye.
I stifle my irritation and hurt feelings and call out stiffly to her retreating back, “OK, bye then.” She turns her head and gives me a “whatever” smirk. This is not how I want to start the day.
As it turns out, neither does my daughter. At 10:37 a.m. in the middle of third period I get a text:
I’m grateful that my daughter reached out to me after our fraught start this morning. The only catch is, she’s not supposed to be texting at school, especially during class. For a moment I wonder how she’s getting away with it—Is her phone hidden under the desk? Is she texting from her muted laptop?—but I quickly let it go. I rarely initiate conversation with her during school hours unless it’s urgent, but I won’t ignore her texts to me. Despite the school’s rules, I’m not going to miss this opportunity to connect with my girl.
I text her back:
Me too. Something going on?
Seconds tick by while small dots highlight my screen telling me she’s typing. A few moments later I’m reading about what’s really bothering her besides me keeping her on schedule. I quickly respond, acknowledging her feelings and offering the understanding I couldn’t muster earlier in the heat of the moment. I tell her we’ll talk more when she gets home. We sign off, me with a kissy face emoji, and her with her Bitmoji sporting two thumbs up. The issue is not entirely resolved, but at least the conversation has started.
In the neutral territory of texting, the door between us opens and we connect.
Instead of acting as a barrier, like it does when we’re digitally enmeshed while sitting right next to each other, the screen is more like a fuzzy blanket providing the safety we need to drop our defenses and be more vulnerable than we are in person. It gives us both a chance to say what we want and need to say without interruption or the distracting body language that silently speaks volumes about our irritation, exasperation, and expectations.
For those of us in our 40s, digital communication is both a marvelous tool and a nagging distraction. We often long to unplug, even as we move closer and closer to the total digital integration of our lives. Our kids don’t have that problem. For them, their life is digital—texting, Snapchat, Google Hangout, Instagram—these are the places where they socialize, make plans, do homework, and dabble with identities for better or worse.
As a parent of a teenager, ignoring technology as a channel of communication feels like a missed opportunity. Connecting with my teenager in the old ways that came naturally in childhood often doesn’t work anymore. While we still have sit-down or snuggle-up gab sessions, they are becoming less common—as it should be. As my teen daughter separates from me and enters into young adulthood, her peer group is ever more important, interesting, and just plain cooler than hanging out with her mom. I’ve become more of a hanger-on than a bestie, but that doesn’t mean I’m OK with radio silence between my girl and me. It just means I’m looking for new points of connection and texting with her—even during school hours—is one of them.
I meant my reminder about the time to be helpful this morning. Through our texts, she let me know that my words made her feel as though I don’t trust her ability to manage herself. In turn, I let her know that her response to my help was unkind and hurt my feelings. Texting gave us each the time and space to listen thoughtfully and be heard, setting the stage for a positive face-to-face conversation later. For me, nurturing a strong, honest connection with my daughter during her teenage years is an essential parenting goal, even if it means breaking the rules once in a while.