Navigating cell phones and parenting

My kids are latecomers to the world of cell phones. At ages 15 and 12, they got their first mobiles three weeks ago.

So far, so good. Nobody’s lost, broken or doused a phone, sexted or dialed China – that I know of.

My husband and I wrestled with the subject of kids and cell phones for years before reaching this point, starting when our now-12-year-old was in 3rd grade. Some of her classmates had cell phones – in 3rd grade! Naturally, our girl began asking for a phone. Naturally, we said no. (“You’re 8!”)

One day my daughter swiped my cell phone. Mystified by its disappearance, I called it from our landline, listening for the ringtone in the house. Instead, my daughter answered, with much little-girl giggling and schoolyard din in the background. Busted! It took a few conversations to learn that a phone-toting classmate was teasing her for not having one, and my daughter wanted to pass off my phone as hers to stop the heckling.

The experience reinforced my adamant stance against mixing cell phones with childhood. But the reality is that in our culture, we expect instant, if not constant, communication from everyone and everything, especially our children. Parents want to know where they are, what they’re doing and that they are safe.

In the years since the stolen-phone incident, my husband and I resisted arming our kids with full-blown smart phones. We cited all the usual reasons: expense, cyber bullying, the distraction of having the Internet at their fingertips. Son is absorbed enough already by his own profound thoughts as the real world marches on around him; Daughter is a bit too vulnerable to peer pressure. Smart phones and the virtual realities they deliver would only worsen those tendencies.

When the kids asked for iPod touches last year, we viewed the devices as a happy medium between total digital deprivation and fully enabled smart phones. Each kid had to pay for half the $200 cost of their iPod. They take good care of these devices, which function like smart phones, minus calling ability. My kids use them mostly for music, but Daughter quickly discovered a texting app. I admit that made life easier, especially when she’d arrive home from school and couldn’t find the cordless to call me. (Chances the last user put it back in its charging base: 50-50.)

The kids immediately developed iPod addictions, though, so – new rules! No devices in their rooms at night and no digital time before school, 9 a.m. on weekends. The morning ban ensures the dog gets fed and nobody bolts for the school bus wearing pajamas and earbuds.

We finally stepped up to iPhones last month, after one too many voice mails from borrowed phones and the inability to contact our children quickly. We bestowed the phones, with the following guidelines:

  • Lose it or break it, we won’t buy another. (The phones were super cheap with the service plan, but don’t tell them that.)
  • Go over the data limit, you pay the extra bill. A good way to burn data is watching all those YouTube videos when you’re not on the home Wi-Fi, so don’t watch video outside the house.
  • If your grades plunge, you lose the phone.
  • Mom and Dad will use reporting tools to know exactly how you’re using the phone, so prove you’re mature enough to handle it.

Monitoring is a big, big deal. In an early, blatant display of omniscience, my husband informed Daughter that she’d sent 175 texts in the first three days. She was almost as surprised as we were.

Since then, school resumed and texting dropped off dramatically, presumably because cell phone use is banned on campus. The worst problem so far is that Son errs on the side of not checking messages (from me, at least) often enough.

Will the kids make stupid mistakes with the phones? Probably. Will my husband and I get caught off-guard by some sinister app or a giant phone bill? Probably. But as weird as it feels to those of us who didn’t grow up with computers in our pockets, today’s world demands that our kids are connected, to it and to us. I just hope their plunge into smart-phone-enabled adolescence will teach us to trust them, and teach them to cultivate that trust.

Do your children have cell phones? What have you learned in navigating this new “normal”?


Sometimes, it only take the blink of an eye to put everything in perspective.

I’ve been a member of the board or executive board of Friends of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt for more than six years now. Of course, I’ve always known what a treasure the hospital is, but my children had never really needed it. Friends’ children and family members had been patients over the years, but I’d never had one of those chest-crushing, breathless moments at the hospital with one of my own.

Despite all my knowledge about the work and reputation of the hospital, I probably took it for granted — at least a little.

Until the one summer night we needed it.

On the Fourth of July, a child standing next to my 9-year-old son Overton accidentally broke open a glow necklace. The liquid splashed into his eye and he immediately began screaming and crying. Even as my husband and I flushed his eye with water, we knew he needed medical attention. We dashed to Children’s Hospital.

As soon as we got the Emergency Department, we were triaged and taken back to an exam room. Nurses and doctors quickly began caring for Overton’s needs as well as those of his nearly hysterical mother. Every possible test was run and and he was ultimately released, no worse for wear.

As it turns out, the fluid was only an irritant but not toxic. Of course, when we were frantically driving to the hospital, however, we didn’t know that. “What if our son lost his eye or the vision in that eye? What if this mysterious glowing liquid were to cause him permanent and constant pain? What if…?” 

Nothing but the best care available would do for us, and we knew that Children’s Hospital would be there for us.

As we left several hours later, I was reminded of how just earlier that day, Friends of Children’s Hospital volunteers had served more than 500 hot dogs to patients and families at the hospital. I thought about all the other countless ways the Friends helps to uplift the mission of this wonderful life-saving (and eye-saving and limb-saving) institution.

And I was grateful. Grateful that I was a part of this wonderful, saving place and grateful that it was here for my son.

You can bet I won’t ever take it for granted again. Not even a little.

Laura Stockett Roberts currently serves as the membership chair for Friends of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. To learn more about the Friends organization or volunteering for the hospital through Friends, visit the website.

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