I’ll never forget when I went to the middle school for the new student orientation in the spring of my oldest son’s 5th grade year. The middle school principal held up a cell phone and announced to the parents, “This is the cause of 95% of the discipline issues that I deal with.” That statement reinforced what I already knew and I remember thinking, “That is yet another reason why my kids aren’t getting cell phones.”
Though I fought it off for a long time, two years later my husband came to me and said, “We need to get Nolan a cell phone.” At that point, it was getting close to Nolan’s 12th birthday and the end of his 7th grade year. In 7th grade, Nolan made the modified soccer team at school and was in travel soccer outside of school. He was literally the only kid on both teams who did not have a cell phone. Due to having three kids and there being only my husband and myself, we couldn’t make it to all of his games. When Nolan had away games and had to ride the bus home, he had to ask the coach for a phone to call for us to pick him up. This was utterly embarrassing for Nolan since there were elementary kids who had cell phones and he didn’t. Not only did my husband want to get Nolan a cell phone, but he wanted to prevent what he saw as an error on our part and get our daughter (who would be starting 6th grade that fall) a phone. He felt getting her a phone for middle school would avoid the issues that Nolan had.
I am a researcher. I am someone who does her homework. I am an educator. I know that there are ways to monitor kids’ phones and I know how important it is to put safeguards in place for cell phones with kids. In fact, it was my desire to avoid introducing these additional responsibilities to my life that caused me to postpone getting my kids phones as long as possible. Long story short, I installed this app on their phones called Google Family. This app automatically creates restrictions on phones for kids who are under 12. That created a new problem. Nolan was twelve which meant the restrictions I wanted wouldn’t work because I had to enter his birthday. I was forced to lie to get it to work. Then, I realized that the restrictions were actually more restrictive than I wanted it to be. For example, I had already allowed my kids to go onto YouTube but with this app, they could only get to YouTube Kids, a very limited version of YouTube. Ugh!!! I’m just a mom trying to do what’s best for her kids in a manner that is realistic and reasonable. Why is this so hard?
Please do not mistake this letter to be about cell phone use. It’s not. The cell phone is symbolic of anything in life that requires some level of learning how to use it for good (since it can be so easily used inappropriately).
I’m thinking about this because in our technology-rich, 21st century worlds, to say, “There’s an app for that,” is not a lie or an exaggeration. There probably really is an app for what you’re looking for. The thing about looking for external boundaries is that they reduce the need for self-regulation. If I have an app that turns off my phone for me at 7:00 so I can artificially limit my screen time, that’s not a bad thing, but it does not require me to thoughtfully and deliberately make a choice to limit my screen time—particularly if that restriction is one imposed on me by others rather than one I have chosen for myself.
Ironically, as a parent, I have imposed restrictions on my kids for their whole lives without batting an eye or thinking, “I’m not sure I want to buy into this because it will be more work for me.” Having kids means I have more work. I have continuously said to my kids, “This is your bedtime,” “You cannot eat that before you eat this,” and “Keep your hands to yourself.” Sometimes my parental restrictions are of the ilk, “because I said so.” There are times, I hope, that the restrictions come with an explicit purpose. I think the best example though of how the imposed restrictions have been opportunities to teach our values is with regard to swearing. As I have said before, I do not swear in front of my kids. However, I have always known that I cannot control what they hear—be it from other people or on TV, etc. As they have gotten older and heard others swearing I have told them, “I cannot control what you hear, but I can control what I say. You know what is and is not appropriate to say in our family.” Why is it so easy for me to talk about self-control in that respect, but there is this fear that devices (like phones, Chromebooks, etc.) and technology (like YouTube, social media, etc.) would be different?
The older my kids get, the more I realize that my time with them is limited. Though COVID has impacted their ability to be with others, the older they get, the more time they spend with other people—sports teams, friends’ houses, clubs and extracurriculars, etc. Eventually, they will leave my house and I will only see them intermittently. This means that what I need them to do now is practice their independence and their self-regulation. Sure they will fail, but so do I from time to time (I really can’t just eat one chip and I really can get sucked into binge-watching TV). The goal is not perfection, but practice. That means rather than looking for the best artificial boundaries, I have to work hard to instill and reinforce values. I need my kids to listen to me, but also to work on listening to their own inner voice. I need to help them find ways to speak up for themselves and own up to their mistakes. More importantly, I can’t do that if I don’t give them a chance to try (and fail) and try (and fail) again.
So, I took the Google Family app off their phones. I had them sign contracts about expectations regarding their phone use which included phone safety and responsibility guidelines, and I made sure that they understood that I would randomly ask to look at their phones with them so I could have a sense of who they were talking to, etc. Rather than an app being our autopilot, I want my kids to learn how to steer themselves and while they’re learning, I will step-up and be their co-pilot.
P.S. This week, I've asked Carly Spina for a catch. Spina (@MrsSpinasClass) is a multilingual instructional coach, speaker, teacher, writer of the blog Innovative Inspiration with English Learners, and upcoming EduMatch author. Here's what she caught and why.
Carly caught a great tool called Name Coach, where you can embed a pronunciation widget into your email signature. By doing this, we can communicate an important message that we value the correct pronunciation of our names and the names of others. This tells those we serve that we want to learn how to correctly say everyone's names! We can listen and practice, again and again until we have it right. Our names are important!
P.P.S. Please remember to...
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