Once my daughter Kennedy was old enough to stay home alone, the question of getting her a cellphone also came up. Suddenly, I was thrown into unfamiliar territory. Parenting is a challenge when the problem takes on weighty, almost absurd levels of symbolic meaning. And in today’s world, few things carry more power than the glowing screen of a phone - destroyer of innocence, bane of ambition and the ruin of many a teenager.
Despite the available parental control apps (we use ParentKit) and some common sense (she doesn’t have access to any passwords), there is no question she has greater access to the world than I ever did at her age. As a kid, I remember walking across town just to flip through a Playboy magazine the neighborhood boys kept hidden under a rock in a grassy field. By comparison, her phone offers a lot more terrain with untold surprises lurking underneath the rocks. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking.
So I did what any naive parent would do. I created a list of guidelines for responsible phone use, hoping that words alone could inspire good behavior.
1. Do not lose the $600 supertoy.
This rule has not been a problem. Why did I even think this needed to be a rule? She knows where her phone is at all times, as it is always within arm’s reach. Now, if she could only be as diligent about her retainer.
2. Do not pull an all-nighter on YouTube.
Kennedy’s bedtime is 9 p.m., and we don’t want her up at all hours of the night watching Internet videos on her phone. Here’s where the ParentKit app is handy. On ParentKit, I can set a schedule that shuts every app down. As a bonus, from anywhere in the house, I can tell when it’s 8:30 p.m. because I hear Kennedy shout in frustration when her phone locks up in the middle of a video. I take joy in the small things.
3. Do not use your phone to tune us out during dinner. That’s what TV is for.
Kennedy is good about leaving her phone alone when we eat together. From what I’ve observed, it’s the parents who have the problem. I remember taking my daughter out to lunch one afternoon. At the restaurant, I saw parent after parent buried in their phones, while their kids ate in silence. We need to show our kids that they are the priority, not BuzzFeed.
4. Do not dare kids to steal your phone.
We don’t want Kennedy flaunting the phone to her classmates. Not only could it make her friends feel bad - and, in turn, they’ll torment their parents about getting a phone - it also increases the risk of someone stealing it. Theft committed by kids always seems to begin with the phrase: "Check out this cool thing I have."
5. Do not be a troll.
My daughter is a sweet kid. That doesn’t mean she’s a saint. Parents, don’t be fooled. Any child is capable of being a bully to somebody. We don’t want Kennedy sending mean texts to other people. We also don’t want her posting photos of anyone without their permission. The Internet is filled with people who find humor in embarrassing others. That’s not us.
6. Do not be one of those kids.
A child should not ignore the person in front of her in order to respond to a text message. We’ve all been there. We’re talking with a friend, and his phone buzzes. He looks at it and makes a snap decision as to who is more interesting, the person in front of him or the person on the phone. He holds up an index figure to indicate this will only take a second. You’ve been denied. You should have been more interesting. I think, even if it’s a parent texting, the child should wait until an appropriate time to respond.
7. Do not end up in the news because you booked a flight to South Carolina to meet your creepy Internet boyfriend who is actually in his 40s.
I buried this rule near the bottom, but it’s the one that worries us the most, isn’t it? Predatory men and women looking for kids they can manipulate. Do not assume your child is "street smart" enough to know the difference between the good people and the bad people. I’m almost 40, and even I am just figuring this one out. If Kennedy gets a text from someone she doesn’t know, she takes it directly to one of her parents.
8. Do not trust a phone to keep your secrets.
A child’s phone is personal, but it’s never private. It would probably be good for parents to adopt a similar mindset. Is anything we do online truly private? Has it ever been? Her phone is not the equivalent of a locked, closed bedroom door. No, it’s more like hanging out on the couch while mom and dad are in the next room - private enough to complain about the lack of privacy. Kennedy knows that when it comes to her phone, I’m the NSA.
'I’d like to say these guidelines were so perfectly crafted that we’ve never had a problem with Kennedy and her phone. But the fact is she is her father’s daughter. She is just as obsessed with her phone as I am with mine. If anything, Kennedy’s phone habits have placed a mirror up to my own tendency to grasp at my phone every other second. I have to consider my own guidelines for how I use my phone. It’s pushing me to become a better parent, to put aside the distractions and find ways to engage with my family and not the glowing screen.
David Hopkins is a writer who was born in Chicago and lives in Arlington, Texas, with his wife and two daughters. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.