Cutting – or at least loosening – the electronic cord

It keeps happening, despite my attempts to discourage it. I’ll be at work, seeing a patient or in a meeting, and I’ll get a text from one of my children: I feel sick.

Now, I’m the mom and a pediatrician to boot, so I do see that there’s some sense in contacting me. But I’m in Boston, nowhere near their school, and there is actually a clear protocol for these situations, as I text them when I can get free: Go to the nurse. I’m not even the one who would go get them—my husband or mother-in-law would. But Mark and Jude don’t do text messaging (they haven’t fully figured it out yet), so the kids text me.

Cell phones and text messaging have created the possibility of total connectedness. In the moment, at any moment, we can reach out—and kids do. I forgot my homework. I forgot my lunch. Pick me up. I need poster board—can you buy it? Parents do too: Where are you? Come home now. Who are you with? We can check in with each other constantly, know exactly what’s happening, give and get input in real time, all the time.

It’s very convenient, and very reassuring, to know that technology keeps us within arm’s reach of each other. But there are downsides.

“There was one phone in the hall and she talked to her parents once a week. It would never have occurred to her to call them more frequently unless it was a true emergency.”

A friend of mine who does career counseling at Tufts and Boston College says that she’s seeing more and more kids who can’t make decisions for themselves, and she wonders if our total connectedness has something to do with it. This was the message from one of the deans of the College of William and Mary, given to my husband and me and all the other parents after our children had been formally and forcibly removed from us on Freshman Move-In Day (that’s a whole other issue—colleges are having trouble getting parents to leave). She talked about how when she went to college, there was one phone in the hall and she talked to her parents once a week. It would never have occurred to her to call them more frequently unless it was a true emergency. Things came up in between calls, but she just had to figure out how to deal with them—all of us did, in the pre-connectedness era. These days, kids don’t have to deal. They call Mom or Dad.

Kids need to learn to sit with a problem or an emotion. They need to be able to sort out their feelings and options, make a plan, and follow through with that plan—by themselves. It’s hard to do, and it can be just as hard, as a parent, to watch without jumping in. You want to help—but sometimes the best way to help is to do nothing at all.

I don’t mean to diss connectedness entirely. Besides the general convenience, it’s a good thing that if our kids get into real trouble (get lost, end up with drunk people who want to drive, are being followed by suspicious characters) they can get help immediately. And it’s nice to be able to check in with our children, to let them know that we love them, to encourage them when they’re worried about something or going through a tough time. But, like with everything else in parenting, connectedness is a matter of balance.

“Like with everything else in parenting, connectedness is a matter of balance.”

If you’re a highly connected family, a good place to start is to talk about it. Think together about what kind of texting is necessary—and what isn’t. Set some ground rules (obeying the school rules about cell phones would be a good start in my family). Be willing to make some concessions; if you’re going to ask your kids to live with the consequences of forgetting their homework, you may have to live without knowing exactly what they are doing and where they are every second.

It’s important, too, to realize that for many families texting and cell phone calls have taken the place of other forms of communication. In our busy lives, we don’t always eat meals together, or hang out at the kitchen table in the afternoon while kids do homework, or sit together in the evening. If we cut back on our electronic communications, we may need to increase our in-person ones.

The thing is, our kids do need our guidance and support. It’s just that they need it in ways that empower them. At the risk of sounding really corny, our love for them should help them fly—not clip their wings.

So the next time you want to text your kid to see where he is, or tell him to do something, try not doing it. And the next time your kid texts you with a problem he should be able to solve (like by going to the school nurse), try not telling him what to do.

I’ll try it with you.