Kids here in the rural suburbs of Pittsburgh started getting cell phones at a young age. The neighbor kid had one in second grade. A smattering of my daughter’s classmates were sporting smartphones in fourth and fifth grade. By middle school, EVERYBODY had a phone.
Or so we were told.
Our parental opinion was made clear early and so Julia never asked to be added to the family plan. We’d talk occasionally about the silliness of children with iPhones. Who do they call? What’s so important about them that they have to be in constant contact? Are they going home to an empty house? What is the deal?
Julia had an iPod when she was pretty little and later an iPad for her video editing hobby and iMessaging. She was never allowed to take these devices to school unlike the masses of children that didn’t have phones, instead dragging their tablets back and forth daily. It didn’t take long for Julia to notice the high percentage of cracked screens. Once she even validated our strict home-only policy and said taking it to school didn’t seem like a great idea.
Sixth grade came and rather than discouraging phone use, teachers assumed EVERYBODY had one. They wanted to text the kids about homework. Classroom free time was given, not for independent reading or catching up on homework, but as sanctioned in school screen time.
And Julia, rather embarrassed by her phone-less existence, wondered aloud whether it might be time for her to have her own device. Which led to a conversation.
“Because everybody has one,” she said.
“That’s not a good reason,” I told her.
The balance of the year was spent having more frequent conversations about the kids that were carrying around iPods they’d pretend were phones and my daughter searching for that real reason to have one. She still wasn’t spending much time away from home and it wasn’t like she needed to call us to pick her up somewhere.
After surviving the first year of middle school phone-free, I made the arbitrary decision that she could get one for Christmas. This would be well into seventh grade. Surely, she’d have some “need” and frankly, I’ve run out of exciting Christmas gift ideas. These aren’t high quality reasons, but the Christmas phone promise did serve to stymie those “poor me” conversations.
Then a little more than a month into seventh grade, Julia signed up for a school field trip to a Pittsburgh street fair of sorts. The teacher in charge announced that students must be paired with a partner that has a smartphone for the trip. Julia’s best friend has just such a device, but my ability to think of the worst possible outcome in any circumstance wasn’t even remotely challenged by this outing. I pictured my daughter separated from her friend in a crowd of people. Maybe she’d find a nice person and borrow a phone to call home or maybe she’d get kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. Years later, drug addicted and abused she’d ponder how different her life might have been if her parents had just let her have a phone.
We went to the AT&T store the next day.
After school, Julia found a box wrapped in Christmas paper in her afternoon snacking place. She identified the size and shape immediately. A wide smile spread over her face and she was near euphoria as she freed the device from its box.
“Is it new or...?” she asked.
“Does it matter? Dad got a new phone and gave me his old one. That’s my old phone. It’s a 6s,” I told her. “Merry Christmas!”
Tim later remarked that she was more excited than he expected and less appreciative. She’s usually quite a thankful girl, but we got just one quick hint of thanks before she resumed her usual pre-teen snarkiness. It was like we’d finally fulfilled an obligation rather than giving her a gift.
The whole thing left me feeling rather icky. I’m glad to see her happy, but I wish that happiness had come from someplace else. I wish we didn’t want what things because everyone else in the world has them. But I also want my daughter to be safe and these days, right or wrong, safety looks a lot like an iPhone.