When I was about 7, a classmate invited me to her birthday party. My mother handed me back the invitation, pointed me to the RSVP instructions, and ushered me into her quiet bedroom to use the phone. I was terrified. Somehow, in nervously dialing that old white rotary phone, I misdialed and got a wrong number. This was too much for me, and I burst into tears and ran to my mother.
Imagine, now, if I were the typical child of today. This situation would never have arisen, which clearly would have suited me just fine. My 5- and 8-year-olds have never made a phone call except to their dad at work. Instead, they ask me things like, “Mom, would you text Rachel’s mom about a play date?” And party invitations? Occasionally they get them in the mail or in an envelope at school, but they nearly always come through my email. (That’s how I send them too – it’s just too darn easy not to.) So what? Well, it means that the bulk of their social life is routed through me, and specifically through my cell phone.
My 10-year-old is too old for that kind of dependence on me, but I think it’s too soon for a cell phone for him. Like all of my kids, he is captivated by the powerful little computer I carry around. What’s not to like? Photos, games, music, asking Siri funny questions, email, Internet, texting, even phone calls — he wants it all.
We’re holding off for as long as possible on allowing him a phone of his own, though, partly because he’s not mature enough for social media nor free access to the whole Internet. Moreover, he’d just be too immersed in a smartphone, to the exclusion of everything else. We’ve seen that with the screens at home; I can’t imagine he’s prepared for the temptation of carrying one in his pocket too.
The acquisition of a cell phone is now a rite of passage for tweens and teens, usually bestowed by parents as a marker of increasing independence. As the apron strings get loosened, kids are now sent into the world with the safety net of a cell phone. Parents say, “My daughter walks home alone now, so I want her to have one.” Or, “He needs a ride after the game, and I need to know when it’s time to get him.” Someday I’m sure our family will reach this point too, the time when it makes sense for everyone for the teen to have a phone. For now, my son is indeed getting more independent, but he doesn’t yet need a cell phone for the half-mile walk to school or anything else he does.
Neither, though, does he need his mom micro-managing his contact with his social circle – he does that. He’s the one to make the call to a friend about what the spelling words are. He sees if his friend is available to come over and play. He asks the Cub Scout leader a question about the project they’re doing. These little tasks give him responsibility, a sense of ownership, independence, life skills – and they all take place on our old trusty landline.
I know that by even having a landline, our family is not following current trends. As of last year, about 40 percent of American households had dumped their landline and now rely solely on cell phone service. Not surprisingly, these numbers are even higher when you look at younger households, with almost two-thirds of 25-to-29-year-olds in cell-phone only homes. In 15 years, when my son is 25, I imagine the landline will be as dead and buried as the rotary phone.
That’s a shame, because the old dinosaur has a lot to teach our kids. My son, who thankfully does not suffer from my childhood phone phobia, knows what to do if someone besides his friend answers the phone when he calls. He can talk to a classmate’s parent and say, “Hello, this is ______. May I please speak to Henry?” (Okay, it’s not always that Emily Post-perfect, but he’s got the idea of phone manners and speaking to adults.) He has naturally committed his favorite phone numbers to memory, which is probably trivial but still strikes this crotchety old fogey as good, since Google Maps and cell phone contact lists have eliminated so much of our need to think anymore. He has learned to leave a voicemail message and semi-patiently wait for a call back if a friend is not home, instead of expecting an instant text back.
We’re lucky, because most of my son’s friends still have landlines, and almost none have cell phones. Even today, two fourth-graders can sometimes spend nearly an hour on the phone, talking about what sounds like a lot of nothing to adult ears. They can make their plans and discuss whether to show up bringing Pokemon cards or bikes or both. They can coordinate what time they’re getting on Minecraft, so they can play together online. Whatever it is they’re chatting about, they feel like they’re getting grown up when they can communicate directly with their friends, and that’s because they are getting grown up.
I confess, though I am all the way grown up, that I still dislike talking on the phone. (Thankfully, I don’t cry anymore when I get a wrong number.) I prefer a few quick texts to making a multitude of short calls, and I use email to replace some other longer calls. I love the many uses of a cell phone, and I happily use the Internet in my pocket for social media, Googling, getting directions, and any number of things.
I’m sure my kids will too, when they cross over into the cell phone zone. In the meantime, though, they’re apprenticing in the simple art of the phone call, moving into independence a bit at a time, until we’re ready to cut the cord and send them out solo, wireless at last.
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