When I was a girl, my parents had two absolute, don’t-even-bother-challenging-them-because-you’re-never-going-to-win rules in our house: No telephones in the bedroom and no TVs in the bedroom. I tried everything: begging, withdrawing, threatening to run away. I even had my bags packed up once, and sat with them on the porch while I waited for a cab. No dice. One look from my mom, and I marched right back inside the house.
They were rules that seemed incredibly unfair and arbitrary at the time. That’s just the way it is when you’re a kid. As an adult, it’s much easier to appreciate how (and why) your parents made certain decisions. I laugh thinking about it now. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we probably had no more than eight TV channels, which was more than most people in the country since we lived in New York City. There was no cable, let alone on-demand movies. Video stores (now virtually obsolete) were a newly burgeoning novelty. The television networks were the biggest censors of their own shows. There were no curse words during primetime. There certainly was no nudity—wardrobe malfunctions or otherwise.
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Although the media landscape was far less treacherous then, my parents still felt a duty to limit my access to the outside world and, perhaps more importantly, the outside world’s access to me. Sometimes I think they went too far, like when they wouldn’t allow me to watch Three’s Company because it featured a man living with two women. (I mostly enjoyed watching Jack Tripper “trip” over things; any sexual innuendo went way over my head.) But what they seemed to have right was this: In order to truly be your child’s first teacher, you must teach your child first.
PHONE PEER PRESSURE
I keep reminding myself of this lesson every time my daughter begs, cries and threatens to run away because my husband and I won’t allow her to have a cell phone. It started when she was 7 years old and in second grade, and the first of her peers started showing up in class with fairly simple flip phones. Just three years later in fifth grade, the kids are coming to school with the latest smartphones complete with unfettered Internet access and even Facebook accounts. (Last time I checked, Facebook users are supposed to be at least 13.) And it’s nearly all of the students in her grade, plus many of the younger ones, too. Most of them completely bypassed the Firefly, that colorful kids’ phone that restricts who your child can call. In fact, it seems even children with unrestricted, but barebones phones get teased by the ones carrying iPhones and the latest Android phones, putting pressure on everyone to upgrade.
My daughter is now one of just a few students in her school who does not have a cell phone at all. I know how she feels because I was often one of those kids who couldn’t do what everyone else was doing. But here’s the difference: I was having these arguments with my parents when I was 13, 14, and 15, say, when I couldn’t attend an R-rated movie. I was approaching adulthood. At 10 years old, I was just outgrowing my Barbie dolls.
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YOU CAN’T OVERHEAR A TEXT
While my daughter is asking herself, “Why am I the only one in fifth grade without a cell phone?” I’m asking myself a question, too: “Why am I one of the only elementary school parents saying, ‘no’ to their child?” My mom and dad didn’t allow a phone or a television in my bedroom for a very simple reason: so they knew what I was watching and who I was talking to. You can’t walk by your child, even in an open room, and overhear a text message. Unless you’re constantly monitoring your child’s cell phone use (that means religiously checking call logs, texts, browser history, photos, videos, IMs and the like—and that’s if your child hasn’t figured out how to cover his or her tracks), you’ve given your child a tool that essentially voids your parental authority.
There are other electronic devices with similar capabilities that have snuck into our children’s lives—and bedrooms. Whether they’re marketed as gaming systems, e-book readers or music players, they continue falling into younger and younger hands. It’s critical as a parent to fully understand what they can do, because once you’ve given your son or daughter certain freedoms, it’s difficult to take them away. Once you’ve lowered the barrier between your child and the outside world, there’s no putting it back. I feel like I still have a lot of parenting left to do before I allow my daughter to have any control over her own welfare.
I’m not sure yet when we’ll give our daughter her first cell phone, though I’m confident we’ll know when the time is right. That time, however, definitely is not now. With any luck, she’ll thank me later.