I Give My Kids Cellphones Because I’m Afraid
I don’t want my 10-year-old to care about follower counts, but I do want her to text me if a shooter comes to school
My kids desperately wanted cellphones. My husband and I had decided to wait until they were in the ninth grade, a policy that was especially aggravating to my older daughter. She’s starting fifth grade soon, which means she’s old enough to know she is too young for most things and young enough to be uncertain about what “old enough” means. She seems to view a phone as the key to bridging this gap. I think she just wants to hold it when she doesn’t know what else to do with her hands.
The thing about cellphones and kids is… well, we’ve seen the thing about cellphones and kids. We’re all too familiar with the stories of cyberbullying, and children sexting children, and adults sexting children. We’ve scrolled through articles about the compression of young minds as the price paid for wallet-expansion in Silicon Valley. It’s become one of the biggest parenting questions: Do you allow your child to have a phone, with everything that’s going on right now? The fear is real, and I’ve bought right into it. How could I give my daughters cellphones when their small hands should be full of books, bike handles, and dirt? Now is not the time for YouTube and follower counts.
They’re both so young. This is most apparent on the ride to school each morning. They sit in the car with their legs crossed on the seat or pressed against their chests. Usually, one has forgotten to brush her hair and the other is rifling through her backpack, certain she’s left her homework on the kitchen table. My 10-year-old always has Band-Aids across her knees, and since my seven-year-old started wearing collared shirts over her T-shirts, she has developed a habit of tugging one sleeve down and the other up.
There has never been a morning when I’ve dropped them off and been sure I would see them again in the afternoon.
I try to make our drive to school the most secure part of our day together. My children do not get in trouble on the way to school; there are no talking-tos or exhausted reminders. On good mornings, we listen to music and sing, or plan the upcoming weekend. On bad mornings, we work to recover from a fight between the two of them, or I apologize for the way I reacted to the state of their room or their slowness in putting on socks. (What is it with kids and socks?)
I try to be casual about my need to impart love and safety before they leave me. I know that kind of thing can become a burden if not handled delicately. So I smile and laugh and listen and turn the radio up or down. Once in a while, we take the long way to school to give us time to get to where I need us to be before the first bell rings.
If you asked me why I’ve established this ritual of rightmaking each morning, I’d say something like, “Well, it’s hard for them to have a good, productive day if they’ve left a chaotic home.” But what I’d mean is: “Statistically, they should be safe while they’re at school. The odds of them dying in a school shooting are smaller than the odds of them dying in a car crash. But there has never been a morning when I’ve dropped them off and been sure I would see them again in the afternoon.”
I do not ever let my girls leave the car without “I love you” (and when the morning calls for it, “I’m sorry”) because I do not ever know if they’ve left my car for the last time.
The 10-year-old always sits up straighter when we get to school, ready to leap from the car and out-walk her sister to the playground. The seven-year-old is wise to all the leaping and out-walking and starts chanting, “Wait for me, wait for me” before I’ve stopped the car. My oldest always rolls her eyes, and she always waits. I wait, too, and watch them disappear through the school gates.
One recent morning, I watched them walk past a kid with his face pressed into his phone, playing one last game before the school day began. My girls’ backpacks bounced against their legs, and my seven-year-old reached out for my 10-year-old’s hand. She took it. I was grateful they were holding on to each other and not a screen.
The shooting at the STEM school in Colorado happened that day. Many children were wounded; one child was dead. When I heard about it, I sat down, pushed my hands through my hair, and started researching kid-friendly phones.
The only power we have given our children is the power to call out to us when we are too far away to help them.
Because you know, the thing about cellphones and kids is… well, we’ve seen the things about cellphones and kids. We’re all too familiar with the stories about whispered calls for help, and children texting parents while hiding from shooters, and panicked parents texting children during lockdowns. We’ve scrolled through the quick, fatal compression of young organs as the price paid for a rough and ready right to bear arms. It’s becoming one of the biggest parenting questions: Do you allow your child to have a phone, you know, with everything that’s going on? The fear is real and, five months and eight school shootings into 2019, I’m starting to buy right the hell into it.
So far, neither cultural shift nor policy change has protected my children. The only power we have given our children is the power to call out to us when we are too far away to help them. How can I refuse my daughters the right to reach me when their small hands are so full of fear, lock down drills, thoughts and prayers? Apparently, now is the time for child martyrs and body counts.
A few days ago, when I picked up my kids from school, I took them to buy a phone. It’s one of those things where numbers have to be approved and there’s no real connection to the greater online world. Still, they feel like they’ve won a grand battle. My oldest smirked when she asked why I’d finally given in. I couldn’t say, If you’re old enough to be afraid of being killed in school, then you are old enough to have a phone.
So instead I tried to smile and pulled her in close. “Well, I guess it’ll give you something to hold when you don’t know what else to do with your hands.”