According to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis (I am no mental health expert, so this is probably a gross oversimplification), there are three parts of the human personality: the id (the primitive, instinctive part that wants immediate gratification), the ego (which tries to satisfy the id, but in more reasonable ways), and the superego (which really tries its hardest to squash the id). Kids — by and large — only show their id. They’re kids. And what do most kids today want more of, at a younger age? No, not kale. Electronic devices, like smartphones.
My kid, who is now 11 years old, is no exception. My husband and I set rules when it comes to gadgets and screen time. We enforce time limits, or we try to, at least. (Sometimes we fail.) We use software that restricts the content our kid can access. We have rules about video games (no violent ones, no interacting with strangers) and what is and isn’t appropriate to watch.
My son is now at an age when many of his friends have smartphones. When he started walking to and from school sometimes by himself, we got him a smartwatch where he can call pre-selected contacts — but he has to have conversations over the watch’s speaker, which is not always ideal in noisy situations (like, say, the schoolyard, which happens to be the location he calls me from 90% of the time). When he begs us for his own phone twelve times a week, we explain that we aren’t trying to be mean parents; we’re looking out for his well-being and setting healthy limits. This is, after all, a child who managed to spend nearly $50 in less than three weeks at the middle school cafeteria — mainly on snacks and drinks — until a discussion was had about making better choices.
But the other day, something happened that made me wonder whether I should re-think my stance. He came home from school upset because a friend of his was talking about a joke made during a group text, and then refused to tell my son what the joke was. My son, naturally, felt left out.
My immediate instinct was to make my son’s hurt feelings go away. He needed a phone immediately! But if I get him a phone — and he’d be getting a pared-down phone with parental limits if he got one — would that solve the problem? He could still be excluded from group texts. There have already been other instances with his peers where group texts led to rumors and hurt feelings.
What kind of message does it send about succumbing to peer pressure if I cave in after telling him he could have a phone when he got to eighth grade? On the other hand, the reality of the situation is that he will eventually have a mobile phone of some kind. It’s part of modern life. And sometimes I’d just like to know that he wants to go to his friend’s house after school without him needing to shout over 500 other kids while I yell “What? I can’t hear you!”
I told my son that his friend could have told him the joke, but maybe it wasn’t that good of a joke if his friend claimed he couldn’t remember it (and couldn’t find his phone to show him… hmmm). Ultimately, my son understood that the problem wasn’t really that he didn’t have a smartphone — the problem was that his friend was being kind of a dingus. As it happened, the next day my son’s friend apologized to him, unprompted. He said he felt bad about the way he’d excluded him. They made up and they’re still buds.
Kids, like adults, just want to feel included, loved, and understood. Will I get my son a phone that allows him to call and text (but not use the internet or social media apps)? Maybe. That seems like a reasonable compromise (and I’ll be monitoring his text messages).
In the meantime, I’ve got an arsenal of Mom Jokes™ at the ready if he needs to come up with some jokes to share with friends — and I know he’ll make sure everyone’s in on it, whether it’s told through a group text or face-to-face — no laughing-crying emoji needed.
Janine Annett is the author of the humor book I Am "Why Do I Need Venmo?" Years Old. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Real Simple, Parents, and many other places. She lives in New York with her husband, son, and dog.