In Defense of Parenting via Text
My fourteen-year-old daughter and I both have a flair for the dramatic, a tendency to overreact.
Recently, on a weekend day at 4:39 p.m., I received a text from an unknown phone. "Hey it's Ramona when is the latest U can pick me up tonight I'm feeling RLLY sick." She was at a slumber party. Her phone was not. After a splash in the toilet, it had been sealed in a container of rice on our kitchen counter.
"RLLY sick" sounded serious. I texted back, "Can I get you after yoga at 6:30?" Was that a callous response? After sending, I imagined her curled in a corner, feverish, with a pillow fight raging above her.
She did not respond immediately. So I gave up yoga to save her. When I arrived, she was fine—sniffling from a cold, slightly annoyed with her friends, and wanting to sleep in her own bed. Not in the fetal position unable to function. RLLY? I call it a “Ra-drama.”
So, I get it. The limited data provided in a text can lead to interpersonal miscommunication. Yet smartphones have undoubtedly improved our family life and made me a better parent.
We’re late adopters of technology. Once you break the seal, it’s a slippery slope. While Sumner, our firstborn, assures me he was the last of his peers to have a phone with a touchscreen (a point of pride for me), our thirteen-year-old daughter has the nicest phone in the house. Due for an upgrade of her text-and-talk phone at the beginning of eighth grade, we caved and bought her a smartphone a year and a half before her brother got one. She was missing conversations with her friends, left to play catch up in person. It isolated her.
When each of our teenagers got their smartphones, I braced for battle, assuming they would soon be cyberbully victims, immediately develop an addiction to porn, or perhaps try to sneak peeks at their phones during dinner. Was there a way to track how their dopamine levels would be affected? They’re such nice kids. How soon would they become drones or zombies?
I have an intense personality. I feel deeply. I express forcibly. My husband says that fighting with me is like fighting the sun. He also says that my superpower is my booming voice. It rattles him when I call the kids to dinner from the bottom of the stairs. The kids feel attacked when I simply holler their name. They say I’m yelling. This is hard for me to accept. Yelling is confrontational. I’m merely rounding up the troops for a family meal.
The first positive thing I noticed about smartphone texting was that dinner began gently. Stair-hollering was replaced with a silent "Dinner" text. The teens peacefully made their way downstairs and set the table.
When Sumner and Ramona had less-smart phones, the phones remained in their backpacks, reserved for communication about pick-ups and homework assignments. Their smartphones are attached to them. This, and the ease of a touchscreen, makes having some conversations easier. For me, the keeper of our schedules and to-do lists, this also makes it possible to mute my overpowering personality.
One of the things I find most stressful about parenting teenagers is the tension between their need for sleep (late to bed, late to rise), my need for sleep (earlier to bed, earlier to rise), and our need to coordinate getting things done. Nagging via text is less loaded.
If I leave the house before they’re out of bed, I don't have to berate them with a list of chores as they wipe boogers from their eyes. I leave them to sleep in and go about my day. Later, they wake up to a neutral text from me, outlining family responsibilities for the day. I usually receive a "K," which tells me they've joined the land of the living.
If someone doesn't follow through with something (and it's not always the teenagers), there's the added benefit of having a record of our conversations on which to base later deliberations. When they can't find the box cutter needed to flatten boxes for recycling or remember how to turn the leaf blower from blowing to sucking, a brief text clarifies and hopefully fixes everything.
I can make a sincere apology via text. In person, especially when unrepentant teenagers are involved, I’m prone to half-hearted apologies followed by long lectures purposed to elicit contrition. Via text, I compose and delete and rewrite my apology, saving further discussion for later. This allows for several hours of goodwill to grow in the hard heart of the teenager and improves our final outcomes.
In Sumner and Ramona's absence, even those that last only a few hours, my heart swells with pride in them. I contemplate all of their accomplishments, oddities and fierce personalities. A wave of delight overcomes me. I think to myself that I should tell them how great they are. But hours later, when I finally encounter them, their hormonal moodiness or a sticky cereal bowl and milk container left out ruins everything. I’m annoyed, and my warm feelings vanish. Forget compliments and praise; I just try to keep myself from rage.
Now, with smartphones at our fingertips, I have a tool to combat this cycle. It can be as simple as, "I love you, sweetie," or as specific as, "Best job you've ever done in the kitchen. Ever.” I need to do that more often.
By nine or ten every night, I’m ready to wind down. Alone. This is the exact moment when teen vampires come to life. Try as I might to connect with them during my prime time hours, they are ready to share all when I want to be brushing my teeth. At this hour, I’m not a good listener, liable to scold and advise.
Ramona and I often explode into squabbles after 9 p.m. I find it difficult to unravel why we’re bickering. We go in circles.
But if I brush my teeth, get into bed and start texting, I can be loving, even funny. Ramona vents and I nod in agreement with a text bubble, using a cat with heart eyes and a smiling pile of poo to say: I think you're great and it sounds like your teacher was full of nonsense today.
One night earlier this year, we got into it because at my bedtime she was hugging me too long, wanting to wrestle when I wanted to go pass out. Twenty minutes later we were trading emojis and texting about what had fallen apart. Apologies were accepted before we fell asleep.
Smartphones haven't ruined Sumner and Ramona. And they've helped me to parent with more clarity, grace, peace and deliberate conversation.