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When my eldest son turned 16, nearly four years ago, I bought him a cell phone for his birthday and soon thereafter was guilt-tripped into getting one for his 14-year-old brother as well. I'd initially seen the cell phone as a high-tech toy, like a PlayStation, except worse: a ridiculous indulgence for a child. But I had come around to the idea that the little gadget was more like a microwave -- a parenting essential.
Like many other baby boomers, I grew up when the TV show Get Smart made the shoe phone a sci-fi joke and came of age in an era when only doctors and drug dealers had pagers. I got my first cell phone for my 40th birthday. At first I was just like my mother is now -- never turned the thing on, couldn't remember my own number.
Nine years later my wall sockets are a rat's nest of chargers and I have my sons on speed dial. I finally understood why all their friends were packing Nokia and Samsung. Once the kids start driving, you spend half your time picturing their mangled bodies in a wreck by the side of the road. So it's a blissful relief to be able to dial and hear your child's voice on the phone.
"What, Mom?" (To get the full effect, read these greetings in a tone of profound exhaustion, impatience, and irritation, a zombie-like register designed to communicate what an intolerable intrusion it is that you have called.)
But zombie or no, he's alive!
Unfortunately, the fact that he still walks among the living is about all you have learned for sure. For your next question is, "Where are you?"
Well, he's "on my way to Mike's." He's "at the varsity girls' volleyball game." He's "at Ben's house." Really. You soon realize that you have no idea if this is actually the case. Okay, you say, what's the landline number at Ben's house? Well. Hmmm. He can't find Ben right now. Okay, what's his street address? What's his last name? You point out that you can look up Ben's number in the phone book.
One time, I seem to recall, it was claimed that Ben himself did not know his own phone number or address.
Still, it gets worse. Because all cell phones have caller ID, your child knows when it's you. So they simply let it go to voice mail, where you leave a detailed message to which no one in the universe will ever listen.
"Why didn't you answer when I called you today? I called three times!" you screech when the AWOL child appears halfway through dinner.
By now the kid is a seasoned cell phone user and has a ready telecommunications explanation: "I had no service," he mutters glumly. "There's like a black hole on the track field or something."
Try to argue with this and you'll be informed that if you had only selected a better cell phone provider -- the cell phone provider all his friends' parents use, for instance -- you wouldn't have this problem.
Recently I learned that for an additional few hundred dollars plus a monthly charge I could equip my children's phones with a Global Positioning System and be sent e-mail alerts when they leave the approved debauchery zone. But this degree of high-tech patrolling offends my sense of decency; while one mother remarked that it isn't the same as sneaking in their bedrooms and reading their diaries, I think it is. (Which, by the way, isn't quite the same as reading their online blogs...but that's another postmodern parenting story.)
And it certainly didn't surprise me to hear that the kids with GPS-equipped cell phones simply turn them off or leave them at home under their beds.
Rather than go all Big Brother here, I, too, have developed a few tricks. When I really want to find my kid I call his friends (it's important to acquire these numbers casually when you see your chance). Since the friends don't have my number programmed into their phones, they unwittingly answer, hoping that the unknown number is that of a cute girl or someone with an extra case of beer.
"Jake," you say, "are you with Vince?" (Don't waste seconds saying hello.)
"Um" -- brief pause to consider moral dilemma -- "yeah, he's right here."
Other ruses: Place your call to your child's phone from an unknown phone number, or have someone else call him for you. "Mom!" he will say angrily, when the bitter truth becomes clear, "what do you want?"
Well, you are angry, too. "COME HOME RIGHT NOW!" you shout. "Or I'm taking away that damn phone!"
Ah, here's the rub. If you take the phone away, you're back to the mangled body on the side of the road scenario. You could take away the car, but then you'd be returned to your former life of carpool and chauffeur slavery. Yes, you could raise your kids Amish-style, with no cell phones and no cars, but you don't want to. You're a big fat selfish bourgeois American parent, and you have your own life to live.
I have actually taken my son Vince's phone away for a while and his car, too: for example, just a few weeks ago when he stayed out all night long after playing a show with his rock band and did not go to school the next morning. He reacted to these deprivations, at least for a few days, with relief. He did not have to receive the thousands of text messages sent to him by his girlfriend every few hours, nor did he have to answer his phone when it rang, as it does almost continually, throughout the afternoon, evening, and weekend.
I can see the clandestine, note-passing pleasure of text messaging, and watch in awe the skill and speed kids have developed with the cumbersome and inefficient typing system. Even adults sometimes prefer to avoid the social challenges of conversation and simply fire off a question or an answer when one is required. However, the multitasking environment in which texting occurs is simply beyond our Get Smart-era comprehension. According to a 2005 study, kids between 8 and 18 spend nearly six and a half hours per day switching among computers, TVs, movies, video games, MP3s, and talking on the phone. A teacher at the college where I work told me he doesn't mind when students surf the Net during his lecture "because that's the way they listen."
My elder son is at college now himself, and with him, cell phone interaction has taken a more positive turn. Since I never really need to know where he is, that whole dilemma is diffused. He calls me more often than I call him, because now that my role as idiot enforcer is over, my role as omniscient expert and personal banker has begun. Questions such as "do you put milk in an omelet?" or "can you put wool in the dryer?" are resolved the instant they arise. "Can you put some money in my bookstore account?" -- well, sure. He likes to tell me when he gets a good grade on a test, or see if I can come watch the crew team row in Princeton. And if I call him at a bad time, he politely texts me back: "In class now, Mom. Will call later."
I assume I'm about to start the cycle again with my daughter, Jane, 7. Not too soon, I hope, though she's already told me she has a friend with a Firefly, a phone designed for little kids with just five parent-programmable buttons. I've heard that a daughter with a cell phone is a different -- and far more fearsome -- animal than a boy. Will I be receiving camera-phone messages from the mall, requesting payment approval for the pink miniskirt and crop top I see on my screen? Will my daughter call and talk to me just so she doesn't "look like a loser" as she crosses a street? Will her immersion in the conversation cause her to be hit by a bus?
Perhaps, the truth is, once you're a parent, there's no scenario that doesn't involve vehicular trauma. And you'll need your cell phone when it happens, believe me.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2008.