My 10-year old daughter recently graduated from elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. Some scoff at the idea of graduation ceremonies for 5th graders but given the nature of the New York City public school system, it serves a great purpose. These kids who have been together since Kindergarten don’t all travel to their designated Middle School like they do in the suburbs, and like I did as a child. Instead they are dispersed across the greater District we live in through a complicated and convoluted application process. These graduations mark a necessary moment for goodbyes and a rather significant change in lifestyle. At the end of this arduous application/acceptance process you discover that your child no longer walks a few short leisurely blocks to their local elementary school. Now these 10- and 11-year-old children will commute on foot, subway or bus, navigating this very complicated and sometimes scary city either alone or, hopefully, with a small group of classmates. Enter the great smartphone debate.
The thought of my very sweet and very petite little 10-year-old girl walking 15-20 minutes along a busy street and over the Gowanus Canal to another Brooklyn neighborhood this coming September sends shivers down my spine, requiring an extra Calms Forte pill for mama’s sleepy time. We have been thus far so lucky to live in a safe, family-friendly, small-town-within-the-big-city enclave of Brooklyn. Now we have to think about things differently… and more cautiously. The cell phone conversation with my daughter began around safety and quickly escalated to talks of iPhones and surveys amongst her friends as to what they’re each getting. For the record, one is getting an iPhone, as is another, while yet another is getting a clamshell but also has an iPad mini and yet another is getting a classic clamshell. Of course in my daughter’s mind everyone is getting an iPhone!
So, what’s the big deal? Everyone has some kind of smartphone, right? We are raising the all-digital generation, and for all of us to stay connected and relevant we need a smartphone. Modern life, simply put. And yet, my response to whether or not I get my daughter a smartphone is murky at best. I’ve consulted many moms, co-workers, male and female single millennials and, of course, my husband in the spirit of research. But I am in conflict.
On one side of this spirited internal debate, I want my daughter to have what she wants. I want to reward her for her elementary school successes, for her acceptance into one of the best schools in the District and just because she’s a great kid. I work hard and try to give my kids the best I can. I come from a large family and a modest upbringing. I never had the latest and greatest of anything. I wore many hand-me-downs, paid for the extras with babysitting money and bummed many rides through high school (thank you Palmetto High Class of ’92 for getting me around!). I want more for my kids than I had—typical story, right?
And then I stepped back a little further and had a look at this. What am I giving my child here? It’s not just a phone. This device lets her go on the internet at her every whim, post photos from her personal life on Instagram, Google any question (academic or otherwise) and text any number of people for advice. I am giving her a crutch for learning, a distraction from living, a hindrance to true exploration, a wet blanket on curiosity and worst of all a blockade to all, let’s be honest, real human interaction. I fight it in my own life. I attend an art opening and the first thing I need to do is take a photo because obviously this event has not quite happened unless I’ve documented it on Instagram. I sit down to a lovely dinner with my hubby on those elusive date nights and simply must stop proceedings to take a photo of my first course and post it because of course everyone in my life needs to know what I’m eating, where and in real time. At the end of a long day at work, after the kids have gone to bed and the dishes are clean, I sit on the couch with a glass of wine and cozy up to freaking Mark Zuckerberg. Lame! I’ve got what my good friend Sarah calls “The Disease” and I’m going to facilitate giving it to my daughter?! And my answer to the Smartphone or Not debate for the last week has been a tepid maybe.
Then I received a text (yes, I see the irony) from my very wise and thoughtful husband in which he said this: “She will learn with less distraction. She will take a slower step into a mediated and virtual world not built of or through her own human sensory and mindful experiences. We will get a little more time and growth to discuss the criticality of this technology which she does not possess. Becoming post human is inevitable but the slow pace might plant future seeds she reflects on and finds to be a useful tool later on in life.” Boom. Smartphone debate over.
I may be a wee bit old fashioned but I’m a fairly rational and pragmatic woman. The smartphone and future iterations will come. My daughter will join the fray like the rest of us and I can’t stop it. But for now, though I may suffer her wrath, this 10 year old is getting a simple phone with calling and texting capabilities. For as long as it is in my power, I will preserve her imagination, slow her pace and hold at bay the marketers and capitalists salivating at our doors to sell and own our personal lives. Because as her Mom, that’s my job.