My husband and I sat in the back of the crowded elementary school auditorium. I shifted on the hard cafeteria table bench, trying to get comfortable. This was our second ceremony of the day — we’d spent the morning at our daughter’s eighth-grade promotion and now we were witnessing our son’s elementary school experience come to an end.
After each kid walked across the stage and collected their certificate, my son’s teacher took the microphone. He talked about the school year and what this transition meant for the fifth-graders, and then said as a father of three teens himself, he wanted to offer some advice to the parents.
It was simple.
“Check your kids' phones and read their texts,” he said, “please."
My heart sank and I looked over at my almost 14-year-old-daughter. She'd had a phone for a year and I'd never read her texts.
That night, after the kids were in bed, I asked my husband if he thought we should be looking through our daughter’s phone. I really didn’t want to — it felt like an invasion of her privacy — but the teacher had said it was our duty as parents.
He said absolutely not, and reminded me that we needed to stay focused on the outcome. He pointed out that she gets excellent grades. She has interests, good friends and doesn’t spend all day in her room. Why should we check her phone?
This wasn’t the first time we’d made a parenting choice outside the norm.
My daughter began walking home from school by herself in first grade, a journey of less than 15 minutes. This choice raised eyebrows in the neighborhood, but we stayed the free-range course with both kids. We wanted them to develop independence and confidence, and knew they couldn’t do that while constantly under supervision. That approach worked well for our family.
Then came the phones.
My generation grew up without cellphones or even the Internet, and none of us know how smartphones will impact our kids. That uncertainty is terrifying. Bunco nights and book club meetings can quickly dissolve into circular discussions about phone fears. Standing in small, tense groups, we air grievances and share horror stories, then come home and glare at the devices resting snugly in their chargers, resisting the urge to smash them with a bottle of rosé.
I’m not immune to phone anxiety. To cope, I made rules. Every night at 9 p.m. I remind my daughter to put her phone away in the kitchen. We don’t allow phones at dinner. During the summer, when I think her phone usage is getting excessive I tell her to read a book.
How monitoring can backfire
Are these rules enough, or are we abdicating our responsibility as parents by not reading our daughter’s texts and messages? Kristen Carey, a licensed psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents, says she sees a number of drawbacks when it comes to reading a teen’s messages.
“When parents give a teen the freedom to communicate privately on his or her phone, it demonstrates trust and it fosters independence,” she says. “And giving the teen that room to express themselves and explore relationships with others outside the family is such an important part of healthy social-emotional development.”
When my kids were small I knew everything they ate and the names of all their friends. I was involved in every aspect of their lives, from the moment they opened their eyes until I bathed them and helped them into their pajamas at night.
When our kids grow into teens we lose that closeness, and it can be a painful transition. Carey understands the anxiety parents feel about allowing teens privacy, and how unsteady we feel when we have less power to protect our teens, worrying they might make a life-changing mistake or encounter harm.
“However, too many limitations on privacy, like monitoring phone usage, can actually backfire, because for teens to feel safe to come to parents with their concerns they need to feel like their parents trust them,” Carey says. “They need to feel like parents are allowing them the room they need to grow, and that includes having that zone of privacy.”
Instead of keeping a kid in line, too much surveillance and monitoring can have the opposite effect.
“A teen will become less and less likely … to disclose problems and concerns to a parent and may also find ways to circumvent the parents’ attempt to monitor, because teens are often more technologically savvy than their parents,” Carey says. “They can easily find workarounds.”
Janet Sasson Edgette is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children, teenagers and families. She thinks many of us overlook the importance of respect in parent-teen relationships, and that affects how we approach our kids’ use of technology.
Parents who respect their teenagers generate valuable goodwill, and in turn, the teens will “wish not to compromise the relationship because there’s an expression of respect and the kid will return it in kind, usually,” Edgette says.
Parent’s actions and attitudes about phones and privacy set a climate for how that parent and teenager will relate throughout the adolescent period, Edgette says. Her advice is to clearly state rules and expectations, and tell your teen you have faith they’ll follow them and make good choices. If they break this trust or understanding, she says, you have the option to check their phone, but you should never do that without the teen’s knowledge.
Edgette and Carey both emphasize the importance of communication with teens. Parents should make an effort to know what’s going on in their teen’s world, but that should happen through conversation, not surveillance. This approach takes time and patience, but it’s essential in a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.
Preparing for adulthood
At the end of the summer I attended my daughter’s high school orientation. When talking about the phone rules at school, the principal suggested that parents periodically check their kids’ phones.
I thought about my own teenage years and the hours I spent sitting on my bed, talking on the phone with friends, waiting for a boy to call and then figuring out how to talk to him. I was learning how to navigate relationships in all their forms. I’m not sure I could have done that if my parents were listening to every word we exchanged.
Giving kids freedom isn’t easy. It’s often terrifying, and I’m frequently filled with worry and self-doubt. But deep down I believe it’s the right thing for my kids. Soon they will be adults, making their own decisions. If I were protecting them at all costs now, it could take away their ability to build the independence and confidence they’ll need later.