In the nine months my son was in day care, the one year of his life both my husband and I worked in an office, he would scream every single day at drop off, without fail. These were not the half-hearted whimpers of a child who was going to get over it as soon as you walked out the door; these were the howls of a mad widow from a Gothic novel, gnashing her teeth as her black gown billows in the unforgiving winds of a dreary moor. My sister-in-law, ever a genius, recommended we read him The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, a picture book written to help young children with separation anxiety. The idea is that everyone in the world has an invisible string that connects them to the people they love, no matter how far away, so you don’t have to worry about not being with someone, because the invisible string means you are with them. I’ve been thinking about that book a lot since we got my 12-year-old son his first cellphone a couple months ago.
Like lots of parents, I was worried about this uniquely 21st century milestone. While most Americans have had a phone in their pocket for more than 20 years (I’ll give you a moment with that number) — and a smartphone, probably, for the past 12 or 13 — it seems we still don’t quite know how we feel about them. When it comes to the crossroads of childrearing and cellphones, we are wandering a hellscape of worries and consequences, hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, and judgment. Kids today, we’re told, are more anxious, depressed, and less meaningfully connected to their peers, all because of the demon cellphones and the social media apps that often accompany them. I was worried about all of that — social media, pornography, OMG nudes! Does he know not to send or ask for nudes?! — as I handed my sweet baby boy (whom I’m pretty sure I just brought home from the hospital yesterday) his first iPhone.
Then he began to text me and his dad. At first a lot of his communications were practical, and honestly, that alone was kind of great. It was like the return of the baby monitor: a way to quickly check in, to make sure everything was OK or to express an immediate need. I didn’t have to worry if his bus was late; he could just let me know he was staying late at school for a club or rehearsal or if it actually was running behind schedule. Even these updates, in their way, could prove to be a source of amusement…
But then, texts started to come in that I hadn’t been expecting. Silly texts full of dopey memes. Group texts with various family members. Bad jokes. Genuinely funny jokes. Heartfelt frustrations and questions. We were texting one another conversations that I couldn’t imagine having in person, not because I don’t talk to my son face to face, but because he has never been forthcoming about the life he lives apart from me at school.
Suddenly, I didn’t have to pry into how his day was going. He would tell me directly and not only that, how he felt about it, opening up opportunities for further conversation later in the day, over tea or at the dinner table.
But the joy of texting is more than just the opportunity to build our bond; it’s also the bittersweet joy of watching him lead a life increasingly separate from the one he has with us at home.
This phenomenon worked the other way, too: He would continue conversations we’d had at home while he was out and about. Like the time I was taking him to his seventh grade dance and asked if people dressed up. “Some people go all out,” he replied. “Some people just wear what they wore to school that day. Last year this one kid dressed up like a hot dog.”
Without his cellphone, there’s no way he would have remembered to tell me after the dance that the Hot Dog had returned…
I’ve come to see my tween’s phone as an indisputably good thing, and it turns out I’m not alone in that assessment. (The images throughout this article include texts from a dozen or so tween and teens whose mothers have come to appreciate the benefits of having a child with a cellphone.)
“I love the group chat with my two teens,” says Jess, a mother of two from Pennsylvania whose children are 13 and 15. “We share memes, articles, thoughts and other notes throughout the day. I honestly feel it adds so much to the parenting-kid dynamic.”
“My 17-year-old will barely give me three words about his day at school,” agrees Marisa, who lives in Massachusetts. “But he will send me funny memes and videos about dogs all day long. It’s how he’s connecting, and I am here for it.”
Having another outlet to build a rapport has been one of the best parts of giving my tween a cellphone. Do I always understand his completely random jokes? No. Gen Z humor is often beyond my comedic capacity as a geriatric millennial. (“Is this… just a video of a man shrieking over a picture of Mario? Ummm… OK. *laugh emoji*”) Texts have been an important space to get information from one another, swap jokes, and even have a conversation that he might hesitate to have face to face because, despite any parent’s best efforts, tweens gonna tween.
“If I can’t get her to talk to me, she will gladly respond via text,” says Randi, mother of a 14-year-old in California. “Also, if I text ‘I love you,’ instead of a grunt I’ll likely receive ‘love you too!’ Those are priceless.”
“I parent by text,” says Martha, a mom of two in New Jersey. “If I’m angry with them or need them to do something, I’ll text instead of talking because they hear me out, or read me out. If I tried to tell them what I was upset about, they’d interrupt a million times, get defensive, and it would escalate. I wouldn’t be able to stay calm either. But more often than not if I’m calm in text, they stay calm reading it and text back with an ‘OK’ or even an ‘I’m sorry.’”
But the joy of texting is more than just having that extra outlet and opportunity to build our bond, it’s also the bittersweet joy of watching him lead a life that’s increasingly separate from the one he has with me at home. There are things we experience out in our own separate worlds that we want to share with one another, not because we have to but because we have to or because it’s convenient, but because we want to. We don’t have to imagine our invisible string anymore. We’re writing it, text by text.