Because I wrote a book about helping kids navigate in the digital age, I speak to a lot of parents who are anxious that smartphones are wrecking their kids. Some of their concerns are valid, but in their fear and panic, parents often overlook how phones help simplify our daily tasks — especially for people who struggle with these things.
It would have made a world of difference for my mother.
My mother was a bad driver. Terrifying, even. She squinted, swerved on the road and could never make sense of maps. A few friends bravely admitted that traveling in a vehicle driven by my mother was too frightening. They’d find another way to get home, thanks.
At school, her heavy, outside-the-lines handwriting got me in trouble. Teachers never believed it was a mother’s handwriting. “I don’t even write in cursive,” I’d protest. When she dialed a long-distance call, she had me read to her from the Sprint phone card. Slowly.
These days we'd likely diagnose developmental coordination disorder and maybe a language-based learning disability, perhaps ADHD. Those are the kinds of diagnoses we have learned about in the age of neuropsychology testing and 504 plans.
Whenever she dropped things or couldn’t read her own handwriting, my mother called herself a klutz, laughing. There was a long list of things she said Jewish people didn’t do, which were really things she didn’t do, and therefore things she wanted us to stop asking about. Skiing was on the list. And tennis. And horses. Horses didn’t come up until my sister, showing signs of the family learning quirks in kindergarten, got sent to private school — with kids who had horses.
After my grandmother died, we found my mother’s old report cards; she threw them away in a hurry. Spelling tormented her. When I won the fifth-grade spelling bee, she was proud — but also maybe a little alienated. Still, she cut the clipping from the Stamford Advocate and put it on our harvest-gold fridge with a magnet.
When my mother started school in Long Island in the 1950s, there was no space in kindergarten, so her parents placed her in first grade. I’ve always wondered if that extra year would have helped, although surely not as much as support for learning disabilities, the kind she fought for my sister and me to have.
These days our practitioners calmly remind us that ADHD and learning disabilities can come with “irritability.” That’s a lovely word for my mother’s explosions, but it is also an understatement.
She was always one-down, frustrated by the struggle to get through each day. Sometimes the mixture of perceived inferiority and frustration bubbled over, and she would throw things or kick us. Now we give kids maps of their brains to try to help them navigate their challenges. Even with greater information, it is still hard to navigate school and work with attention, language or neurological differences. But my mother didn’t get a map or any accommodations.
She didn’t get the digital tools that we take for granted, either.
She spent my adolescence fighting lung and then breast cancer, and died in 1997. I was 22; she was 51. It would be 10 years before the first iPhone came out. It took a few more years for me to get one in 2011. I took a selfie in the Apple store and posted it, and friends eagerly welcomed me to the party. Smartphones and apps made the world much easier to navigate and fill in some of my “detail deficit” weak spots — like keeping track of notes for my book research and summer camp options for my kid. Calendar reminders help me show up on time for clients and friends. The amount of stress and embarrassment these apps let me sidestep adds tremendously to my quality of life.
I frequently fly to cities I’ve never visited, rent a car and head to my speaking gigs, secure that the USB port will keep my iPhone charged and that the Google lady will tell me when to exit the highway.
Since writing “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and getting to speak to so many parents, I’ve had many occasions to consider how these tools might have given my mother a different experience of the world — and even of herself.
What ambitions would my mother have allowed herself if she had grown up with spell check or a digital calendar to make the days easier to keep track of? She had a carousel of jobs when I was kid — retail at Lord & Taylor, the help desk at Greenwich Public Library, human resources at Borders headquarters, receptionist at a podiatrist’s office — but never a career. Certainly nothing where she had to write documents that other people would read.
Had my mother lived into the 21st century, the Google lady would have helped her to get where she was going. I picture her in some alternative future, setting off confidently on a road trip to meet her grandchild in Chicago, where I live with my husband and son. One-touch dialing and texting might have made it easier for her to stay connected with faraway friends and family — the people who didn’t call when she got sick, who didn’t know what to say.
Toward the end of my mother’s life, my father set up an Apple computer in the outgrown toy room amid the piles of medical bills on a desk. The cursor blinked white in the tiny green screen. In the later rounds of treatment that didn’t fix the cancer, my mother began to write poetry on the computer with her “I’d rather be 40 than pregnant” mug by her side. She never learned to touch type, but hunting and pecking was a fine pace for writing poetry. The poems she wrote spooled out of the printer in one long sheet. Unfettered, finally, from her illegible handwriting and the mortification of spelling anxiety, she let herself become a writer.
Our smartphones may help quell some anxieties, but, of course, they feed others. Perhaps social media would have left my mother comparing herself to the kinds of women who ski or play tennis. The women whose children are chief executives and lawyers now. Our devices can erode our competencies, too. My own spelling has declined with spell check, my navigational powers are less practiced now that the Google lady accompanies me everywhere I go.
Still, I wish my mother had her chance to try a smartphone. It might have liberated her.
“Tech can help us overcome our deficits and find our super powers,” I say to auditoriums full of stressed-out parents. I let myself picture my mother and the ambitions she might have allowed herself if she had grown up with a phone to help her find her way in the world.
Devorah Heitner is the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and is working on a book about coming of age in public.