I have teenagers. And I have discovered that when people wince and say “I have teenagers,” their voices full of resignation and bewilderment and pain, it is not because the teenagers are evil, or doing drugs, or slamming doors or sneaking out past curfew. It is because having teenagers is like wearing a big sandwich board on your body that says I AM OLD ENOUGH TO HAVE TEENAGERS on both sides. It is the betrayal of our youth that we resent, not the teens themselves. Because if childhood is any indication, our high-schoolers will be college students in the blink of an eye, and then they will be in their twenties, and at that point we might as well wear a Proud Grandma t-shirt and reading glasses around our necks and take up bird-watching.
My two oldest children are fifteen and fourteen, and they were both given cell phones for their birthdays. They were the last in their group of friends–possibly their entire class–to have a phone, and at some point during the summer before high school, we caved. They hadn’t actually been asking for phones, but in their not-asking was an implicit, desperate plea for a phone. They know that in our family, to ask for something as worldly and secular and expensive as a phone is certain assurance that you won’t get one, but to simply pine for one, in a quiet, stoic way that your mother can’t help noticing, and yet not actually ask for one, paves the way to owning it. It is in this way that my daughter acquired a winter jacket that says North Face on the label. We didn’t cave in to their begging or even asking, but rather to our (my) perception of their longing, and the fact that everyone else their age had one. Ten-year-olds have phones now, and by this time next year, it will be normal for seven-year-olds to have a phone. So we caved. North Face jacket notwithstanding, it was not like us at all.
Our thinking was that our firstborns were heading to high school, a huge new school where they would know no one, they would need to contact us more as their freedom began to increase, and that–even we, the parents could see this–it really was socially detrimental to have no phone at all. It would be like when I started middle school, and my home-made lunches included tuna sandwiches on alfafa bread and recycled baby-food jars of home-made yogurt. Not impossible to overcome, but a formidable obstacle to making friends. Every kid they knew had a phone; we even had it on good authority that in high school they were expected to bring a phone or other wifi device to class. It seemed silly to buy them cumbersome tablets and some kind of shared, arcane flip phone. Plus, our phone provider which shall remain nameless but rhymes with ‘Horizon,’ had in place some kind of crazy loophole mandating that adding one or two flip phones to our plan would be significantly more expensive than adding two smart phones. My husband spent roughly ninety minutes on the phone with “Horizon,” talking in circles and finally arriving at the conclusion that we would need to pay more to have less, and his efforts to speak with someone with the authority to change this rule were reminiscent of Dorothy and the Wizard. I am not sure if it was something they heard in husband’s voice, some weakness they seized upon, but Horizon wore him down. They then convinced my shrewd, frugal husband that we not only needed to get two smart phones, but that they needed to be i-phones. With data plans. They preyed on the weakness all men below forty have, the technology-is-so-cool weakness that can assert its ugly head even where issues of frugality and parenting are involved. Added to it was my critical weakness, the weakness all moms have, the I-so-want-to-make-my-child-happy weakness, and the what-on-earth-do-you-get-a-teenager-for-their-birthday conundrum, and somehow the result was that my kids’ birthday present was an iPhone. Each.
In our defense, they only got an iPhone 4, which Horizon was practically giving away. Actually I think they paid us to take them, whereas if we’d have purchased flip phones with no data plan, it was going to cost us dearly. We are obviously not the only family to be suckered into this, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a teenager whip out a flip phone to text a friend. (Maybe the teens with flip phones keep them hidden away, as I learned to do with the sandwiches of shame and the yogurt.)
Still, an iPhone 4 is an iPhone, and if you hold it just-so, it can pass for an iPhone 5. An i-phone 4 can get you on the internet and send millions of texts and has apps. An iPhone 4 has a preliminary version of Seri, I.O.S. 7, and can store a mind-blowing amount of youtube videos and photos. It is a real i-phone, and I am stunned that we let two of them into our lives; looking back, it’s like a bad decision you make after too little sleep or too much alcohol, neither of which were a factor.
The family is now adjusting to the phones, the way you adjust to a new puppy who turns out to be a carpet-piddling, furniture chewing terror. And when I say “phones,” I really mean phone in the singular, because a son with a phone is a very different beast than a daughter with a phone. Son-with-a-phone keeps the phone on his dresser or in his pocket. He uses the phone to look up homework or directions, listen to music while he mows the lawn, or text his friends one-liners like do we have practice? Even when girls text the son:Hey there, what’s up? That was so funny in geometry when Casey was asleep! BTW, are you going to the game on Friday? his answers are not lengthy: Maybe. For the son, the phone is just an i-pod that can look up something or make calls, though I don’t think he’s ever received an actual call from anyone but me.I rarely see the thing.
The daughter’s phone is the bane of my existence. For the daughter, the phone is her lifeline: a two-by-five miracle that supplies her with constant interaction with friends, youtube videos that can pull her malleable emotions in one direction or another, music to give shape and meaning to her day, and answers to the many questions of her curious mind. (The questions range from: Seri, how many of Raphael’s frescos still survive? To: Seri, does Luke Hemmings have a girl friend? And: Seri, why do you think Zayne left the band?) She used to be so smart, so curious about real scholarship and ideas, but now her phone and the stupid information it provides is a life-preserver and an extension of herself–almost a prosthetic limb. She shows me youtube videos every day; cute things, like a kitten struggling to get out of a coffee mug, or Chris Evans eating soup on the set of The Avengers. She shows me Instagram postings of her actual friends and people she doesn’t know but follows (“Look, Momma, here’s a picture of my friend Caitlin’s cousin’s friend–he knows Idina Menzel and they’re balancing spoons on their noses!) Her texts to her friends are entire paragraphs of casual conversation about clothes and teachers and boys and feelings and even the weather, (and why Zayne left the band), and she converses regularly with her Seri, whom she has made into an Australian male. She talks to him the way Iron Man talks to Jarvis, and it concerns me. I’ll be making dinner and she’s up there in her room with Hugh Jackman, “doing homework,” which means spreading books out while texting and listening to music.
There are benefits to the phone, I know. Daughter-with-a-phone is musically talented, and she uses her phone to watch instructional videos about playing various instruments. Now she can play virtually anything on a ukulele, and is moving on to other stringed instruments. The phone has assisted with math homework many times, thanks to Khan Academy, and the texting capabilities of the phone have been a hugely helpful in setting up logistics of her social life and rides home from everything she does. Also, daughter-with-a-phone texts me, her little ol’ mom, often enough that I feel our relationship has grown. (Example of text from daughter-with-a-phone: Hey Ma! Guess what? Mr. Hanson made me section leader of the sopranos! He was all like ‘you were born to do this’ and I was like ‘aw.’ Also, got a 89 on history test but Ms. Jennings said I can bring it up with extr. credit. I’m taking the late bus home. Love you! Example of text from son-with-a-phone: practice til 5.)
But on the whole, I hate the phone. Both of them, but especially my daughter’s. I feel she has lost something–some piece of innocence–we cannot ever get back. She would be horrified at the thought that the phone has somehow destroyed her, even just in some teency way; she would deny it with tears in her eyes. And maybe I am overreacting, but here is the truth: I wish we’d never gotten the phone. It is an impediment to family time and sanity and peaceful, non-electronic down-time, so we have had to install rules about the phones: no phones at meals, no phones after nine o’clock, no phones anywhere near their grandfather or anyone else over seventy, and so forth. The kids understand and are happy to abide by the rules, but it's just one more damn thing to monitor. And what I can’t control are all the times they (she) might have joined her little sister in a game instead of being on her phone; all the times they (she) might be reading or sketching or even being bored, which is a good thing. She still reads, but she used to read a 300 page book in two days and move on to another; now it takes over a week, because the phone provides so many other ways to spend time. She knows way too much about stupid stuff, and not enough about real stuff.
I guess I am disappointed with myself: I feel like I did so many things right when they were younger. I didn’t let them watch scary, trashy movies, I didn’t let them eat too much sugar, I didn’t let them play violent video games. We made sure, all these years, that we eat dinner as a family far more often than not, we discussed virtues like modesty and steered clear of outfits that look like they were purchased in the "young prostitute" section. We prayed together and played together and said a gentle no to “dating” in seventh grade, for Pete’s sake, even though their friends were. But now that the phones are part of our life, I feel I have been demoted to the ranks of stupid parent: the ones who feed their kids Coco-Puffs and Hawaiian Punch; the ones whose daughters, in crotch-skimming mini-skirts saw their first Lady Gaga concert at age six. I’m one of them now.
I don’t know how to go back, or even if it is the right thing to do. The kids pay for their portion of the phone plan by themselves, with money they earn babysitting and mowing lawns, so I feel they are earning the right to their irritating devices. We are trying to teach them to use the phones responsibly, but in our culture that just means not texting while driving. They are absolutely everywhere, and even adults don’t employ polite phone etiquette. To expect your child to keep the phone hidden in social situations or leave it alone for hours at a stretch is akin to expecting them to courtesy when meeting someone, or to wear white gloves and a hat to go shopping. Two hundred years ago, women were expected to keep their ankles covered, and now we think: why? That's so stupid... Soon we will think this way about using a phone when you are supposed to be spending time with others, or sharing a meal. Our kids will think remember in the early two-thousands, when our parents thought it was rude to have a phone out? Why? That's so stupid! Even my smart, poised, socially aware and gracious daughter will think this--the deck is stacked against me and my weird rules. Phone etiquette is mostly a thing of the past; a charming novelty of yester-year.
I could take the phones away. If it was a stupid decision, I should un-do it. And I suppose I might, except that now I need them to have a texting device to communicate with us, and, again, to give back the smart phones and get a texting flip phone will actually cost more. Their teachers and coaches and scout leaders all expect them to have a phone, not just to text but to check email from school. So it is a difficult decision to un-do. But I will keep fighting my little battle. So help me, I will be that parent with the crazy expectation that phones–or whatever we are calling them in ten years–do not make an appearance at my dinner table, and some weekends are still phone-free except in the case of the one on the kitchen counter that my family still calls me on. The kids’ future fiancées will just have to understand that I am adamant about this, and my Stalinesque forbiddance of phones is part of what made my kids the grounded, wholesome people they love. Now, I’ll end this tirade: there’s a squirrel hanging from the bird feeder outside and I need to take a picture with my phone and post it on Facebook.