I am no different than most moms. I make a boatload of mistakes in my parenting but sometimes—way down the line when my missteps don’t seem so embarrassing—I make sure I let other moms know about them (strength in numbers, gals). So I won’t mince words when I admit that when it comes to kids and cell phones, I was kind of an idiot (past tense, for really, I feel a fool no more).
I have four kids. The older two are college-age (cue a plethora of other worries), but my younger two are teens—and boys. I know, groan, right? And this constant connectedness before the onset of acne brings a whole new freak show to parenting. Sure, there were cell phone fights with my first, two but these smartphone smackdowns are ridiculously worse. These are monsters we have created; our kids are obsessed, and it is getting completely out of hand.
It’s a huge, festering problem, and most parents know it yet can’t seem to get a handle on it. So listen, exasperated parents, and calmly repeat after me: Take back the phone; take back the kid.
A quick story: Last summer my ninth-grader did a pretty stupid (albeit typical) teenage thing at the beginning of the summer. We were furious and immediately shot that parental arrow smack dab into his Achilles heel—we took away his phone until the first day of school. That’s right, for the entire summer.
Now, we fully expected a miserable 10 weeks of epic hormonal proportion and duly braced ourselves. But a funny thing happened during that time. Our kid returned. I don’t even think we were entirely aware he’d been missing so long, but there’s no doubt that his pleasant personality and funny disposition had been hibernating for some time. It turned into an enjoyable summer, full of conversation (remember conversation?) and eye contact (remember eye contact?), and it was nice—really, really nice. I had an epiphany at that time and have since changed the way I parent my teens with their cell phones. So by all means, do learn from my mistakes and take heed. Here are my five rules for cell phone usage.
1. Limit the phone every single day.
A few years ago, parents everywhere welcomed the teen cell phone. We could reach our beloveds at our will, know exactly when to pick them up, and ease their mortification of being the last kid standing outside the movie theater. (Pretty amazing any generation ever survived that, right?) The truth is, somewhere between those dinosaur days and the present, parents have somehow forgotten that cell phones aren’t lifesaving devices all the time, especially when our kids are nestled safely in our homes.
It may be an adolescent way of life nowadays, but cell phones are certainly not a necessity. What started as a means of communication to ease guilt-ridden parents has morphed into this absurd entitlement of round-the-clock entertainment. We created this beast, so it’s up to us to reel it back in. Start taking phones when teens walk in the door. Bonus: You’re bound to hear more about their day if you do.
2. Keep the phone nearby.
Don’t have the cojones to follow through with rule No. 1? Then take a smaller step: Don’t allow teen phones off your main floor, especially if bedrooms are located upstairs. Make sure phones are used, charged, and visible where most people congregate at all times (this holds true with computers too). Bonus: This reduces the inevitable Mole Syndrome, where your teenager stays behind a closed door for hours, only exiting to eat.
3. Take the phones with you when you go to bed at night.
Not-so-shocking news flash here: Kids who sleep with cell phones in their rooms aren’t really sleeping much at all. They’re sending and receiving text messages (and other nonsense) with all the other kids who also retired for the night with their phones. Mine tried to tell me he needed it for the alarm. Nope. I showed him how to set an actual alarm clock (ooh, mom’s a magician). Good grief, parents: Kids behind closed doors socializing all night long? It’s such a ludicrous and completely unnecessary concept if you really think about it. Just say no. Bonus: Believing they’ve missed 12 hours of breaking social news, they’ll surely get up faster in the morning, too.
4. Use a smartphone like a dangled carrot every chance you get.
Sad but true, most kids get their first cell phone before their first job, which basically means their parents are stuck working longer and harder to pay for it. I make sure my kids know that since they may be too young to be legally employed, their only “job” is to do well in school, pitch in around the house, and be an upstanding citizen. Come on now, isn’t that the very least they should be doing for the privilege of using such expensive equipment? But they’re kids, and there’s always going to be a thing or two they need to work on.
To save my own life, I could not get either of my boys to bring wet towels out of their rooms. I’d scream and squawk about it every day of every week. Now every morning before they leave for school, in order to get their phones (which naturally are with me), they show me the towels they’re hanging up. An exchange of goods is made, and my mornings are a lot less cranky. By all means, use the force—of the phone bill you pay—to get back control: Stop chasing down missing school assignments, incomplete homework, or baskets of laundry that need to be put away. You pay for it. The privilege of using it should be earned. Bonus: You’re giving them a life lesson of what’s expected in the real world.
5. Know the password to unlock the phone.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but remember, I’m a former idiot about cell phones. The cold hard truth is (and don’t kill the messenger here) eighth-grade girls are sending pictures of their boobs to boys, and boys younger than eighth grade are looking at all sorts of things more explicit than boobs on their phones.
I do allow for some degree of adolescent privacy because I am acutely aware that if my own mother ever knew some of the things I wrote on paper to friends and boyfriends, there’s a good chance my internal organs would’ve melted from heated shame. But, and here’s the big but, I can check my kids’ phones at any given time. They know this, and they also know that when I put my hand out to do a random check, that phone is mine with no questions asked. I’m not saying they’re not doing stupid things with their smartphones (again, boys, it’s pretty much a given they are). I’m just saying that if the constant possibility of Mom seeing it makes them think twice about doing it in the first place, I’ll take it. Bonus: It’s always smart to keep ’em on their toes.
Listen, nothing is guaranteed here. But kids, teens especially, crave boundaries. We’ve got to give them some. This is an easy fix, parents.
Take back the phone, take back the kid.
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