It was a powerful moment in a gripping live show, and the theater glowed with two lights: a spotlight on the stage’s lone singer, and a bright square beaming from an iPhone in the lap of the teenage girl sitting—and texting—beside me.
I glanced at the stranger disapprovingly. No reaction. I turned and glared at her. Nothing. When I finally leaned over and whispered, “You need to turn that off now,” she flipped her hair (no, really, she did), emitted an irritated “pssh” sound, and begrudgingly shut it off. Which meant that I could now focus on the show.
Only I didn’t. I spent the third act wondering, as the parent of a soon-to-be-texting tween, how cell phone etiquette is established. Surely there’s a way to teach kids how to use the things for good and not evil … right?
When it comes to setting rules about household chores and thank-you notes, parents have two handy sets of guidelines we can follow: 1) Do what our parents did, or 2) Do the opposite of what our parents did.
But technology changes with each generation. My folks had to decide whether to let me bring my Walkman on visits to grandma’s house, and how much Atari was too much Atari (“Mommy, why do I see the Space Invaders aliens when I close my eyes?”). Parents today have to establish texting edicts from the ground up, based on trial and error.
And I fear I’ve made some errors while trying.
My 7th grader now has a phone. Since he’s riding buses, wandering malls, and bumming rides to away-games, the phone is a convenient way to keep tabs on his whereabouts—as well as his ever-shifting when-abouts and increasingly intriguing who-abouts.
We laid down minimal rules: We own the phone and reserve the right to withdraw usage. That’s it.
Oh—and no texting in dark theaters, for the love of god.
Over time, though, we’ve come to disdain the boy’s phone. Because the flipping thing is omnipresent. It’s like a newborn baby; it cries out unpredictably, requires constant attention, and can’t be left alone even for a second. Especially near a swimming pool.
The rate of buzzing and keypad tapping seems to increase daily, as my husband and I scramble to erect new rules for each annoying way that his hobby interferes with polite human interaction. It feels like playing Whack-a-Mole, beating down texting offenses as they pop up.
At the dinner table. At night, when he’s supposed to be sleeping. After school, while he’s doing his homework. Here’s what transpires between algebra problems: Wassup? … Nada u? … Same. … Cool. … That cannot promote quality work. (I know because I checked Facebook 26 times while writing this column, and look how it turned out.)
It’s hard not to be insulted when he flips open his phone while we’re watching our favorite TV show together, or riding in the car—a time once reserved for oral conversation. He used to read books on the couch for hours; now he texts there. “This is reading,” he argues, and I tell myself he’s joking. Ha ha! Good one, son.
Fed up, my husband recently bellowed this absurd new rule: “No texting in the presence of … another human being … ever!”
In our determination not to raise a rude texter, we may have gone overboard, systematically eliminating potential texting occasions until his whole day—his whole world—is a text-free zone.
Sometimes I recall the snarling, glowing face of the girl in the theater and wonder if teenagers send text messages in dark theaters for the same reason so many of them wind up having sex in cars: It’s the only place where their propriety-preaching parents won’t see it.