Standing in the middle of the Verizon store, a wave of nausea washed over me. We were about to activate my daughter's first cellphone. It was a hand-me-down, an iPhone we'd held onto when my husband upgraded. We were reconnecting it to the world with a SIM card and a new phone number, and placing it in the hands of our child.
My daughter is freshly 12. She'll head into 7th grade in the fall.
That evening at the store, I realized I was crossing yet another line in the mommy wars by failing to pledge my troth to the latest parenting craze, "Wait Until 8th." The pledge calls for parents to wait until their kids hit 8th grade before giving them a smartphone. Its tagline, "Let kids be kids," appeals to our sense of helplessness as our kids grow up.
The pledge spread like wildfire on social media this summer. I've seen it shared by parents who I consider to be really smart. And at one point in my life, I would likely have agreed with them. After all, we didn't have no stinking cellphones when we were kids, and we survived!
But the reality of raising a kid in the digital age hit me hard about a year ago, as my daughter began asserting more independence, and I began allowing her to spend increasing amounts of time with her friends, with no grownups in sight.
When I was her age, no adult was no problem. If an after-school activity was cancelled, I lined up with my friends at the school's two payphones, quarters hot in my hand to call my dad to swing a few miles north to the school. When a late-night movie ended at the one-screen theater in our small town, I walked directly out the front door of theater, out across the street, over the railroad tracks, down a hill, across another street, through a dark alley and came out into the light of the one gas station open until 11 p.m. No one thought anything of it back then. It was just what you did.
But times have changed, as much as I hate to admit it.
In 1999, there were an estimated 2 million payphones on the streets of America. In my hometown, there was one at the gas station, one at the community center, and another in the pullout across from the gas station 5 miles up the road. If you needed to check in with your parents or — more importantly — needed their help, payphones were our only option.
In 2017, payphones are no longer an option at all. The phones at the gas stations are long gone. The community center phone, too. We just don't need them anymore. Not because our need to communicate has dissipated, but because we've long replaced the solitary payphone with individual pocket-sized devices that can call home in an instant. These days I wonder how many kids even know their parents' phone numbers by heart.
My daughter will never know what it's like to stand in the movie theater, debating between Sour Patch Kids and Red Vines, calculating in her head how much she can purchase while still leaving money left over to make that call home for a ride. She will never stand beside the payphone after encountering the answering machine and debating: Are they already on their way? Should I hotfoot it back to the theater? Or should I beg a quarter off my best friend and try again?
It's not that I'm naively pining for the days of payphones. I am well aware that in those days, as in modern times, walking alone at night to the gas station to call home wasn't entirely safe. And in an emergency, getting in touch with a parent could be a daunting task. Simply put, the days before kids had cellphones, they weren't as safe as they are today. Sure, they might be getting too much screen time. Yes, I sometimes worry about what apps she might download, or cyberbullying — it's why we both signed a cellphone contract regarding what she can download and how she can use the device. Nevertheless, smartphones do come with their own risks. But those risks don't negate the fact that I want my daughter to have a way of getting in touch with me while she's out becoming an independent person.
So, despite hyperbolic headlines that caution parents that the devices have "destroyed" a generation, and comments on Facebook groups accusing "lazy moms" of letting their kids "run amuck," I can see past the nostalgia of days long gone to the simple fact that kids don't just want cellphones. They need them, and for much the reason that the Wait Until 8th pledge claims they don't: Because if we want our kids to just be kids, we need to give them their space. We need to let them spend time with their friends doing what kids do. The best way to do that without sacrificing my daughter's safety (and losing my mind) is by giving her a lifeline back to me.
I want to send my daughter to the movies with her friends, to allow her to stay after school for sports practices, to let her take a class at the local library — all the things that I did as a child with a few quarters jingling in my pocket. Thanks to the cellphone, I can let her do them all. And when she needs me, I'm just a phone call away.