How A Text Chain Letter Reminded Me My Kid Is Still A Kid
We bought our daughter an iPhone for her 10th birthday. She hadn’t yet experienced any demonstrable privileges, like a later bedtime or a large allowance that distinguished her as the oldest of our daughters. We thought it would be the perfect milestone of independence and responsibility. She could create her own playlists and mess around in Minecraft, but she could also walk home and meet her sisters as they got off their school bus.
I read up on privacy and safety online. I said no to Instagram and Facebook, but let her get photo editing apps. The biggest rules were: No buying apps without a discussion, and her Dad and I would be able to read her texts.
The phone didn’t transform her into a hunched over, surly tween. In fact, she cracked me up with her passion for the Tips feature. “Did you know you can swipe to take a picture without unlocking your phone? Or that you can swipe to answer a text?” She was so earnest about the technology and reverent about her passage to phone ownership, I was elated.
We had a hiccup with in-app purchases one Saturday. A $247 hiccup, to be exact. I’d read about kids racking up hundreds of dollars worth of iTunes purchases, but my naiveté led me to believe that an in-app purchase for a kids’ game would be 99 cents, not $49 in one click. We worked through it (thank you to Apple for giving us one get-out-of-jail-free card). I attributed the misstep to cockiness.
As she sat with headphones on singing along to increasingly mature lyrics from Taylor Swift, I saw her blossoming into an almost sixth-grader. I was tempted to pine for the days of pigtails and “Me do it.” I shook my head. This is supposed to happen. I wanted to celebrate the young woman she was becoming.
I was at work one day when my phone began to vibrate on my desk. I scooped it up after seeing my daughter’s name. I’d barely gotten out a hello before she interrupted me in a breathy, panicked voice.
“Mom, I’m OK, I mean I’m not really OK, but I think I am.”
“Slow down, Briar. What’s happening?” I asked.
She rambled hysterically, “I have to tell you something, but I don’t want you to think that my friend is bad or mean.”
“OK, honey. Slow down, take a breath. Can you just tell me what’s happening?” I motioned with my arms, as if I could somehow stop the inevitable sensation of falling while she was in distress somewhere other than where I was.
“It’s a text, Mom.”
I exhaled. Oh, it’s just mean girls, I thought.
“It says if I don’t do what it says the bloody boy will come to my house at midnight and hide under my bed. Then he’ll kill me.”
It took me a few seconds to process that she was reading me a chain letter.
“Honey, that’s just not true. It’s a chain letter.”
“What’s that? How do you know? Mom, the whole school is talking about the bloody boy in the mirror and I…”
“Briar, it’s not true. Take a deep breath. This is just a trick, OK?” I told her I’d be there soon. I raced home, thinking about the intimacy of texting, the immediacy and penetration of personal space it has, that letters and phone calls don’t.
At home, I looked at her phone and saw a run-of-the-mill chain letter, the only exception being that—since I received chain letters—they’ve gone from “you’ll have a lifetime of sadness” to “I’ll wait under your bed and kill you.”
“Listen, this is a trick to freak you out, just like kids being mean at school are just trying to get a rise out of you.” I searched her face for some sign that she got it. What I saw was wide-eyed terror. As I talked her down, I talked myself down.
Technology has advanced, racy clothing hits the shelves in smaller sizes, music lyrics are more vulgar, but the bottom line is that kids are still kids. They get scared, they’re gullible, they overestimate their maturity.
“Briar, can I talk to you about this?” She had buried her nose in a book. She looked up at me, the same blue eyes that had looked at mine through a talk about menstruation and breast development.
“It’s OK that this scared you.” We let it hang there. She seemed uncertain. “This is why Dad and I will look at your texts. We can delete this now.” She whistled with a sharp intake of breath.
“No one will be under your bed, none of your friends will get hurt. I should have thought this through. I didn’t think about strangers adding you to group texts. I am so glad you called me.” Her shoulders loosened and her eyes locked on mine.
“You did the right thing,” I told her.
“I’m sorry I was scared,” she said.
“It’s OK. I know I wasn’t here when you got the text, but I am here now and we can always talk, OK?”
She gasped and threw herself into my arms. I kept my own gasp quiet. I hadn’t been trying to rush her to grow up, but I’d made assumptions about her ability to distinguish between trick and truth.
We didn’t answer that chain letter, but we did agree that I’d stick a little closer to slay the monsters under her bed for a while longer.
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