By Delina Codey-Barrachin
The First Phone February, 2016.
“I need a phone,” the begging began. “I really, really need one.”
I sighed. “Didn’t we just have this conversation this morning? And yesterday? And the day before? Do you have some new piece of compelling evidence to enhance your case?”
“I need it,” my son said, “because I am the only one in fifth grade without a phone.”
“R doesn’t have a phone,” I pointed out. He shrugged, his best friend’s phoneless state clearly irrelevant. “Everyone in my class has one.” “You’re not really friends with the other kids in your class,” I pointed out. “Why do you care that they have phones?”
“Because they all talk about things and I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“They text each other,” he said. “They have a group chat for our class and they plan things and leave me out. They play games, and they talk about them. They do all kinds of things! We don’t even have a gaming system! I don’t have a laptop! I don’t have anything, and it’s not fair.” He paused. “And besides, even though R doesn’t have a phone, he has an ipad and a wii.”
True points. “I’ll talk to your dad,” I said. “We’ll see.”
We had promised T that we’d get him a phone when he started sixth grade, as most of our friends had done with their kids. Sixth grade, the beginning of middle school, seemed like a reasonable time, but we had noticed more and more fifth graders carrying phones on playdates and in sports carpools.
“I like to know I can get in touch with him,” a parent said. “And he can call me if he needs me.”
“I can’t believe you let T walk to school without a phone,” another parent told me, her voice barely disguising her horror. “What if something happens?”
Like what? I wanted to ask. So he can call me right before he gets kidnapped? He was more likely to get hit by a car while texting.
But in February, 2016, when T was ten years old, we caved to the begging and got him a refurbished iPhone 5. It was close enough to sixth grade, we rationalized. And he wasn’t having the best year with the kids in his class. If he was getting left out and made fun of for not having a phone, maybe this would help him fit it. Right?
T was thrilled. We went over our rules and expectations, wrote everything down and made sure he understood. The next morning he walked the mile to school as he did every day, but this time with a phone in his backpack. He felt cool. We were proud. The future looked bright and full of communication options. Everyone was happy.
At 3:40 that afternoon, he pushed through the door and threw his backpack on the floor. “Y said I should have gotten a 6! He said 5s were stupid phones.” He stared at me, betrayal in his eyes. “Why didn’t you get me a 6? This IS a stupid phone. It’s, like, someone else’s old phone. It’s not even new.”
I took a deep breath, holding back the lecture on being grateful that he was a Westchester ten year old with an iphone instead of a homeless child, or a refugee on a raft.
“Did Y tell you all that?” I asked. “Because this morning, you liked your phone.”
“I hate him,” T said. “And I hate my phone, too.”
The first time I encountered Y, at a birthday party at the local pool the previous summer, he was organizing all the other kids at the party to hide from my son. “Where’s T?” I heard him say. “Let’s run up by the tennis courts so he won’t be able to find us!” I wrote it off as sadly typical mean-kid-ness, but when T found out Y was in his class for fifth grade, he broke down into tears and told me a number of things Y had said and done to him in fourth grade that were beyond what I could ignore. I called the school, but they wouldn’t change either kids’ placement, and T entered the school year with dread. The school principal had called Y’s parents, and Y had been warned that his behavior needed to stop, but it hadn’t.
“Don’t let someone you don’t even like have that kind of power over you,” I said. “Don’t let him wreck your happy feelings about your phone.”
“I do like him,” T said. “Just not my phone.”
I’m not the first person to realize that children, at times, act like very small crazy people. Y, as the most powerful kid in T’s world, was both hated and desired, and what he said was truth. Mothers, on the other hand, spoke vague, Charlie-Brown-cartoon-like nonsense. I gave up and started dinner.
As the days went on, T discovered that his phone, stupid as it was, was useful for certain things. He could call me after school and beg for a ride home, claiming that his legs were too tired, his backpack too heavy, the hill much bigger than it had ever been before. He could stop on the way home from school and play video games without me knowing. And when Y told him to sign up for a YouTube channel, for Facebook, for LinkedIn (super useful for a 5th grader), T went ahead and created profiles for himself all over the Internet.
Y continued to insult T’s iphone 5, and we started seeing T tossing his phone like a baseball, chewing on it like a puppy.
“If you can’t treat your phone carefully, we’ll take it away,” we said.
“I’ll be careful,” T said. And then the screen cracked.
“Look!” he announced triumphantly. “It’s broken.”
“Good thing we have insurance,” I told him. “We can take it to the store, and you can pay the deductible with your allowance.”
“But I told Y I was going to get a new phone by tomorrow!” he wailed. “I told him I was getting a 6!”
“You thought if this phone broke, you’d get a 6?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yes! Because this is an old phone. They don’t make 5s anymore. They only make 6s.”
“True,” I told him. “At the Apple store. But this is from Verizon, and they refurbish 5s, just like yours. And they fix screens. Let’s go.”
After he’d emptied his entire cookie-tin of savings, and spent a boring afternoon at an off-brand repair shop (because it turned out that the insurance I’d purchased with the phone did not cover cracked screens) we returned home with the same iphone 5 he’d started with. Good as an old refurbished phone could be- or so we thought.
It turned out that whatever trauma T had inflicted on it to break the screen had also damaged it internally. As soon as he tried to use it, the letters started shaking, the screen locked up and then everything went black.
“See?” T said, looking pleased. “It really IS broken.”
“Good thing we have insurance,” I said.
The Second Phone March, 2016
This time, the insurance did kick in, and we got a brand-new refurbished iphone 5.
T stared at Phone#2 in disgust.
“I don’t want it anymore,” he said. “This phone is just as stupid as the last one.”
By this point, the entire phone experiment seemed unimaginably misguided, so I didn’t disagree. “You really don’t want it?”
“Nope.” The phone had taken all his money, had given Y another thing to tease him about, and he didn’t like having to keep track of it. He shoved it in my desk drawer and we forgot about it.
Three months later, he asked if he could have his phone back to use as a camera while playing golf with his dad. “Sure,” I said, and gave it to him. The two of them headed out, and I didn’t think about the phone until the next day, when I asked if he wanted to put it back in the drawer.
“My phone?” he said, looking blank.
“Yeah, your phone. Where is it?”
T looked at his dad.
“Umm,” my husband said.
The phone had been left in a golf cart, and Find My iPhone located it on a street corner in Mamaroneck.
“What should we do?” my husband asked, hoping that I wasn’t going to ask him to drive to Mamaroneck to confront the phone thief.
“Make a police report and forget it,” I said. T agreed. We suspended the service and everyone was happy, especially the guy in Mamaroneck.
The Third Phone February, 2018.
T was in seventh grade, and just about everyone really did have a phone now. T was into photography, and not that into video games, and he was two years older, two years smarter, and hopefully, two years more responsible. The suspended contract I’d signed up for when he was in fifth grade was ending, and if we wanted to keep his phone number we needed to renew the agreement. We had an old iphone 6 in a drawer, which T said would be fine, “even though the camera on the iphone 8 is far superior.”
“How about one of those life-boxes or whatever they’re called?” I suggested. “Totally indestructible?”
“I hate those cases,” he said. “They’re all thick and weird and you can’t feel the screen right. I’ll just be careful. Really, really careful.”
And he was careful, really, really careful, until we were hiking in Costa Rica 3 weeks later and he had his phone in the pocket of his shorts, and we all jumped into a rainforest pool.
T was devastated.
“That happens,” my husband said. “It could have been me. Let’s give him a second chance.” (Or a fourth…)
The Fourth Phone April, 2018
We dried off the SIM card, put it into our other old iphone 6 and everyone was happy.
The next thing to break wasn’t T’s phone. It was his backpack. The zipper was failing, but there was only a month or so left until the end of school.
“Use a binder clip,” I told him. “Don’t bend over when you’re wearing the backpack.”
“I bike to school,” he pointed out. “I have to bend over.”
“Don’t bend over too much,” I said, and handed him another binder clip.
And then one day he went over a curb on his bike, fell off onto the pavement and the phone bounced out of his broken-zippered backpack. It may or may not have been run over. He wasn’t clear. When he handed it to me, the phone had been peeled apart like two halves of a sandwich.
“It was totally destroyed,” he explained. “Completely broken. So I wanted to see what was inside. I figured it didn’t matter since it was broken anyway.”
“It matters!” I yelled, completely losing my cool. “Maybe it wasn’t that broken! Maybe it could have been fixed! Insurance, remember? But not now! Nobody can fix this thing!” I buried it in the trash, completely forgetting about electronics recycling.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It really did break.”
“I think you have been hit by a phone curse,” I told him. “And I am never getting you another phone. Is that clear?”
The Fifth Phone October, 2018.
When T entered 8th grade, we were told that he needed a phone. Teachers were asking kids to use phones in class, to look up information, to check out books, to photo-submit homework.
Even R, T’s best friend, now had a phone.
“I will try this one more time,” I told him. “You are putting it in the most indestructible case on the market. If you take your phone out of the case EVER, I will Krazy-glue your phone inside the case and I will glue the case together.” He looked horrified. “Then I could never take it out!”
“Exactly.” I held up the tube of Krazy-glue. “I am totally serious. “This is your last chance. If you break this phone, you can wait until college.”
T looked suitably contrite.
So we got a fifth phone. A brand-new iphone 8, from the Apple store, and a brand-new indestructible case. It’s ugly. It’s blue and clunky and the screen doesn’t feel the same. But one year later, it still works, even after he used it shortly after receiving it as a shield against a light saber (or maybe threw it at the friend with the light saber- we’ve heard conflicting stories). But it didn’t break.
It’s much easier to control what he can and can’t do on the phone than it was four years ago, and we have all kinds of parental time limits and restrictions that he doesn’t like.
What we like is that we can take the phone away when he breaks rules, and he cares enough about losing the phone to try to correct his behavior. We also like going on vacation to places without good Internet access. When we read that an eco-resort on some distant shore or forbidding peak has no wifi or cell reception, we book it as fast as we can.
Parenting in a society where everyone has smartphones isn’t easy. We have to figure out how to keep our kids away from them so they can do the important developmental work of playing, of getting dirty and being bored and riding bikes. But when even kindergarteners are using tablets at school, keeping our kids away from screens can seem impossible. Still, it’s important to resist and delay, to give kids crayons, to make up stories or play 20 questions instead of handing over a device.
Eventually, though, we do have to teach kids to deal with screens. Whether it’s at 10 or 13 or 16, we can’t cut them off forever. Whenever we decide the time is right, we have to teach our kids to recognize the pull of their phones, the dangers and temptations, the brilliant and enticing world.
My twelve-year-old daughter complained mightily when we decided to join the Wait Until 8th movement last year. Now, though, she’s decided she doesn’t even want a phone. Her best friend doesn’t have a phone, nor do two of her other best friends. Instead, they email each other from their laptops when they’re supposed to be doing homework.
But when they’re walking home from school, they’re talking to each other and looking for cars, instead of walking while texting. When they’re hanging out together, they’re creating plays, or drawing, or swinging outside. But if a friend comes over who has a phone, every time I check on them the phone is out and the playing doesn’t happen.
We can’t keep our kids away from technology, but we can educate and delay, and try to convince our kids’ friends’ parents to delay along with us. And when we do get our kids phones, we can glue them into waterproof, crash-proof cases and hope that they don’t use them as baseballs, chew toys, or shields against light sabers. Then again, maybe that’s the best use for them.