Is Your Child’s Cell Phone Stunting Their Growth?

images-1There’s a lot of growing going on in my house these days. I’m at that strange stage of parenting where I’m painfully realizing that my job is to help my kids to not need me. That’s the goal, right? As my oldest is headed to high school in the fall, and my middle child will be entering middle school, I am realizing that I am running out of time for the whole teach-them-how-to-function-independently-as-an-adult thing. The end of this school year is causing great reflection for me. Approaching 16 years into my marriage, I feel like I’m just getting the swing of this whole responsible-adult-raising-kids role. And now the sand is tornadoing to the center of the hour-glass. We all know that it moves faster at that point.

However, a theme has been creeping up in some of my reading: over-parenting. In our attempts to be all that we can be as a parent, it seems that we are forgetting that the children need to turn into adults. This may make some parents happy. Just the other day, my nearly 14-year-old asked me, while I was clearly busy, if I could make her an ice cream cone. I looked at her. Paused. “You’re almost 14, shouldn’t you consider making your own ice cream cone?” “But you make them better.” I fell for it. Well, that’s probably true, I thought. My nurturing impulse kicked in and I gratified her request.

Afterwards, I questioned myself. What’s so bad about letting her make a mediocre ice cream cone herself?  I think that would have been better for her. Unless one day her life depends on making a stellar ice cream cone for an evil dictator, and I am contributing to her demise. OK, maybe not, but it would have helped her to grow up a bit, and to learn that she’s not the center of the world. Opportunity missed.

There comes a time in every parent’s life where we have to make that scary decision that our child is ready to wipe their own tush. Of course they’re not going to do it as good as us. But they have to learn. It’s our job to teach them well, and leave them to their business. We are still there if they need some advice.

I find myself now wondering which apron strings to loosen as my kids are growing. Do I still need to regulate every calorie that goes into their mouths? Do I let them go to school not listening to my advice that their outfit just isn’t working out, or do I make them change? At what point should I stop editing their papers and let them find out for themselves through the red pen?

This all goes back to the Psychology Today  article that I referenced to earlier, A Nation of Wimps. Instead of healthy, functioning adults, are we raising a bunch of co-dependent, anxious, namby-pambies? The article suggests that the cell phone is functioning as an eternal umbilicus that we are all too happy to continue coddling our children through. Here’s an excerpt of my favorite part that makes the point oh too well:

It’s bad enough that today’s children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone. Even in college—or perhaps especially at college—students are typically in contact with their parents several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: “Hi, Mom. I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on the bottom as well as on top?”

“Kids are constantly talking to parents,” laments Cornell student Kramer, which makes them perpetually homesick. Of course, they’re not telling the folks everything, notes Portmann. “They’re not calling their parents to say, ‘I really went wild last Friday at the frat house and now I might have chlamydia. Should I go to the student health center?'”

If I am running five minutes late, I get the text, “Are you coming?” Or, a half hour before time to pick my daughter up from school I may be alerted with, “I’m so thirsty, please bring a water bottle.” I get pictures sent to my phone while my daughter is out and about. It feels great that she’s thinking of me. And I have the benefit of knowing that a psycho-maniac has not abducted her while she’s away from me (just a little fear of mine). But is it good for our children to have this constant communication with us?

The perpetual access to parents infantilizes the young, keeping them in a permanent state of dependency. Whenever the slightest difficulty arises, “they’re constantly referring to their parents for guidance,” reports Kramer. They’re not learning how to manage for themselves.

Again, I encourage you to read this article for yourself. Studies are showing that our children are missing out on major coping skills and it is leading to depression, immaturity, short-sightedness, and curtailing their intelligence.

Of course, this isn’t just a Christian issue, but I think our faith has a lot to do with over-parenting. We should certainly take our responsibility in raising kids seriously. As Christians, we know at a deeper lever what a privilege our vocation is. But as I mentioned before, we are hurting our children when we perpetually step in as their savior. This is hard. Our vocation is to reflect, to point to, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But as our children grow, we need to make sure we are not usurping his title.

As far as the cell phone is concerned, I wonder if we are stunting our child’s prayer life when we are their constant lifeline? Instead of remembering to pray without ceasing, our children can just pick up the phone—“Let me ask mom…” Even in our relationship with God, we don’t have this kind of growth-stunting immediate response. We are called to seek him continuously in prayer, confident that he is working all things for the glory of his Son and our good. But we hold to his authoritative Word revealed in Scripture. We need to study it, mediate on it, and all the while, the Holy Spirit helps us to recall it as we make our decisions throughout the day. This is how God works to grow us in wisdom. He doesn’t verbally tell us what to make for dinner or how to dress each day. He lets us wrestle with the everyday issues as we apply his Word and grow in wisdom. He is our God, not our crutch.

Cell phones aren’t evil, and I’m not going to confiscate my daughter’s (at this time). But I have a lot of thinking to do in this area. I’ll start small with the ice cream cone…

What do you think?

  1. A lot of the dependence on Mom does actually go away when they go away to school. My youngest, when he first went away, did a little of what you describe with his phone. My daughter also, would text me regarding her almost failed cooking experiments. Now, they’re moving away a little more with regard to such things. If I text my middle child, he doesn’t answer at all unless it’s a serious matter. Sometimes, I go for a week without speaking to him, which I think is more what I was like as a young person. When my kids began making some of their own decisions, I think they kind of liked it.

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  3. It is good to read your thoughts on this. When I taught in Christian school, I was sad to see that Christian parents were so busy fixing things for their children that the children almost never actually learned and grew for themselves. I’m glad to see that there are Christian parents thinking through this and desiring to have their children grow into actual adults. Keep up the hard thoughts!!

  4. Hey Aimee, first time reader, first time commenter. Great point regarding “As far as the cell phone is concerned, I wonder if we are stunting our child’s prayer life when we are their constant lifeline?…Even in our relationship with God, we don’t have this kind of growth-stunting immediate response.” My kids are a bit younger than yours (5 and 3 and 0) but even at this age they are constantly lobbying to play on our cell phones. Even though it’s not to communicate with us I still see it as a means of instant gratification, distraction and constant feedback. I don’t imagine technology becoming less convenient and less distracting in the future but ultimately the struggle isn’t really about technology. God said in Hosea “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (understanding of God’s Word). And I think you are spot on regarding “[holding] to his authoritative Word revealed in Scripture. We need to study it, mediate on it, and all the while, the Holy Spirit helps us to recall it as we make our decisions throughout the day.” Unfortunately, despite my stubborn intentions to keep cell phones, tablets, video games and whatever else like these that gets invented over the next 15 years, out of my kid’s hands and eyes 24 hours a day, I am resolved that they are going to grow up in a world with constant streams of feedback, information, and access no matter what I do. So I rest in knowing that God’s word is sufficient even for times like these and that He will bless my efforts to teach my children His commands and about grace and Jesus’ work on the cross. Great thoughts, look forward to reading back through your blog and your future posts.

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  6. Aimee, yup, these are hard parenting stages to go through, but, I think that balance is the key. Sometimes in the struggle to not raise coddled kids we back off way too much and loose the relationship all together. It’s a fine line to walk and to create at this stage of the game. I’ve seen that our kids need to know that we will be there all the time… but that doesn’t mean I’ll clean their bathroom and make their bed.(Though occasionally I will when I see their schedule overloaded and want to provide a little stability and clean sheets :) ) I’ll listen, be available, cheer, support, provide (when appropriate), and always point them to Jesus. We want our kids to be independent yet completely dependent on Jesus, tough but completely soft to His word, driven all the while focused on the needs of others…. being that ourselves and sharing the struggles we have with them is the joy of having teenagers… as we move from less parenting to being more brothers and sisters in Christ we pray and pray and pray….

    • do I dare add a little more? All these situations you talk about: cell phones, fixing papers, making ice cream cones… we need to slow down and use these as opportunities to build relationships with our kids. What does that look like? Asking questions and sharing stories on cell phones- and always just letting them know you love them. Fixing papers: they sit with you as you discuss the topic of the paper. What are they trying to communicate? How can it be better organized. Tell them why you changed what you did. You are a better teacher than the red pen or the writing lab as you will build relationship and have conversation topics to tie into Christ. Ice cream cones: I’ll make you and ice cream cone while you load the dish washer :)! Oh yea and lets talk about… Remember how good it felt with all the pressures of growing up to know that your mom would always be there with warm muffins or the perfect ice cream cone? :)

  7. Hey, perhaps that young woman who called her mom about the sprinkles was relaying valuable information on how to handle an evil dictator’s crazed dessert demands? Frankly, I think the article’s writer seized on something slightly silly. We really don’t know what htat mother-daughter relationship is like, and this mioght be a fun topic they revisit with each other; there’s certainly nothing in it that says to me “Watch out, you’re making your daughter over-dependent and stunting her maturation!”

    I’ve probably already told you thi, but for our kids my wife and I had a constant refrain as they finished high school and proceeded to college: You raise ‘em up to move ‘em out. And no matter how we might have done too much for them along the way, the truth is that at ages 22 and 20 our son and daughter are leading missions teams to Vietnam and South Africa. I think they overcame whatever over-parenting we might have engaged in.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  8. Hi Aimee,

    I found your blog via Tim Challies. I appreciate your honesty and the questions that you are asking. I, too, have been married 16 years, but we came into parenting via adoption of older children, one of whom is 18 and his sister, who is 17. I won’t go into all the *challenges* of parenting an older child (we adopted them when they were 7 & 8) because, frankly, everyone has challenge. Ours were a different flavor and we needed more boundaries than most, but your post is, to my reading, about boundaries. We knew that electronics would not help us in *attaching*. So we didn’t have any of the electronic gadgets. Just two years ago, my daughter *finally* got a desk top and an email. We homeschool and so we didn’t have to deal with the school and the use of computers. I remember when we did have them in school in 2004 and the principal was proudly showing us computers for our 7 & 8 year old and I thought: RIDICULOUS. I still think that. I have used a computer at work for years (when I was working outside the home) but a few lessons on Lynda.com and my daughter outpaces me on most programs. But I digress.

    You posted about cell phones and kids. We live near Silicon Valley and we still don’t have a cell phone. Well, correction: we do have one, packed up in the garage because it won’t work in the states; only for our overseas trips. The kids don’t have one. I think our son, who live and works five hours away is finally going to get one. Our daughter has absolutely no interest in one. She sees what her peers are doing with theirs and their Facebook pages and she is more rabidly anti-social media than I am. None of these are evil, but essential? Perhaps…one could make a case for it as it is harder and harder to find a cell phone. But I have yet to meet a kid that actually used theirs for an “emergency”. I hear of abducted kids where they find the kid’s cell, thought. It has its conveniences for arranging to pick up, etc. But we just keep our cars in good repair and plan for traffic problems and we are often earlier than those with a cell. I know, for me, it would be a crutch (translation: I would have to get one of those pay-by-minute so I won’t use it that way) as I would not plan ahead.

    What you posted about cell phones for kids, Aimee, has reached its fruition in what I see in young twentysomethings. To be sure, not all of them, but enough of them have trouble socializing, but they all have cell phones and blogs and Facebook and they are tied to “back-home” in ways that would have been unaffordable for me when I was away from my parents. They have trouble making friends here because they are “connected” back home.

    Cutting to the chase, we want our children to have to “think”. That is what scared me the most about cell phones. We don’t have GPS for the same reason. We want to be aware of our surrounding, think through when we get lost and read our map. We also believe in what epidemiologists call “herd immunity”: there are enough people that have cell phones that those that don’t can just offer to *pay* those that do for the few times they need them. I won’t say calling my husband to put potatoes in the oven as I forgot to when I ran over to Target is a reason to use one, but, hey, the guy at customer service was more than happy to lend me his.

    I think the surprising thing to me is that the kids that have cell phones in our homeschool community see them as a tether because their parents have all these restrictions: “Call at a certain time… check in…” No wonder, they think it is “cool” that our daughter doesn’t have one. It’s the parents of our daughter who are shocked.

    As you said, Aimee, it is certainly not wrong to get or use a cell…I just wonder if people *think through* what they are losing when they do that. They often think of all the advantages which morph into “necessity”.

    Maybe one day we will “grow up” and get one…I hope it’s a while. I love the freedom to *think*; to be *untethered* and, as you said, to pray.

  9. Good thoughts regarding cell phones and maturity.
    Many parents model this behavior as well. If a parent is addicted to their cell phone, their child will likely be also. We have three children between the ages of 12-24. None of our children got a cell phone until they got their drivers license. And It wasn’t a smart phone. It’s purpose was to make contact with us as necessary. Don’t get me wrong, we’re available to our children 24/7. However, they don’t need us to help them make every decision. When our oldest was a freshman in college she called me every day, once a day, as the adjustment was very difficult. Now, almost 6 yrs later we talk about once a week.
    It would be helpful if all of us would loose the tether of the always present cell phone.

  10. I totally get the gist of this blog… but I also think it’s cool that kids are in touch with parents about the details of their lives even into college. I wish I had that when I was transitioning to adulthood. I was totally on my own and completely unprepared for life with no counsel or wisdom offered and I was lost without a tether. As an adult I had a friend whose daughter and son would call and ask for their counsel throughout their college years regarding relationships, school load, pressures, depressions etc. I was amazed by that and impressed at the trust they had in their parents for wisdom. As young adults they are now functioning, still close and going to their parents for advice and exhibit more of an healthy independence to interdependence. Perhaps sharing the sprinkles under the ice cream is just an extension of this, maybe it’s a reflection of over involvement; I’m not sure since that is an anecdotal story, we can’t really know. I’d like to see us encourage those family bonds since we are coming out of a time, culture and sit coms where parents, especially fathers are made to be caricatures of stupidity and out of step, irrelevant. I certainly get the point of the blog that as parents we want to move kids toward greater levels of independence. I am tracking with you with a 15 year old and 13 year old and my own tendencies to over-function for the sake of efficiency so I do appreciate the reminder!!! I guess as with everything needing to be constantly mindful of how wisdom is best applied is a lifelong exercise.

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  13. Amen! I actually read that lengthy article through your reference. I liked it. It seems that in my country over-parenting is a cultural norm/plague. As we try to raise our little one based on the principles that a lot of conservative christians in the States (like you) find just normal, we get a lot of puzzled looks from older ladies. Masculine upbringing in our culture is in a terrible shape. I remember myself after university graduation… I didn’t know (almost) anything about struggling with real life in the bigger world. You need to think of training an apprentice blogger for the Russian speaking world! I wish christian women in my country could read things like that!