My kids are awesome and I’m doing what I can to keep them that way. Even though nearly every kid in sixth grade has a smartphone, my husband and I have chosen to delay getting them for our daughters, who are 10 and 11.
On the sixth-grade circuit, this decision is about as far from cool as you can get. It means that sometimes our kids feel excluded. It also means having regular, difficult conversations about why we believe this is the right choice for our family. One night last month, this choice was put to the test.
That night I found myself in the emergency room of a hospital on the Upper East Side with one daughter with a broken hand (she plays hockey) while the other daughter was at swim team practice in Battery Park.
Their dad was out of the country on business, so I was juggling logistics by myself. It takes lots of planning to travel from our home in Brooklyn to the girls’ school in Manhattan and sports in every far-flung direction of the city. But I was feeling pretty confident in my ability to manage the logistics of two kids solo for a weekend.
My 11-year-old knew to call me from the front desk at the pool when her swim practice ended. Since it was looking like I might be in the E.R. all night with her sister, and we were all far from home, I arranged for her to meet a classmate’s babysitter at the Starbucks two blocks away from the pool. The sitter was to pick her up and take her back to the friend’s nearby apartment for a sleepover. A sleepover on a school night? Surely, I would earn some “best mom ever” points.
I sat in the E.R. waiting room basking in the fact that I had A) arranged an impromptu sleepover and B) seamlessly communicated the plan to one kid while C) simultaneously calming down her 10-year-old sister who had a bone sticking out of her hand. Who run the world? Moms!
Except not quite.
About 30 minutes after the babysitter and my daughter were to have met at Starbucks, I got a text from the sitter: “I’ve been in Starbucks for 30 minutes and I don’t see her.” My heart started to race. My perfect little plan had just blown up into an epic fail. Where could she be? It’s dark. She has no phone. So much for my high and mighty plan to swim against the smartphone tide. Now she’s unreachable. Alone. In New York City. It’s dark. Damn you, Netflix true crime specials, for putting visions in my head. Also, damn you, Liam Neeson, for those “Taken” movies.
After a frantic text exchange with the babysitter, I reconfirmed that my child was indeed lost.
There I was in the E.R. triage area, watching other frantic parents enter with newborn fevers, bad coughs and chubby fingers hurt from getting stuck in doorways. All I could think was that losing a kid on the streets of New York was much worse than any accident that was going to walk through those doors.
I was a terrible parent.
Suddenly, my phone rang from an unknown number.
It was my daughter.
“Mom, hi, it’s me,” she said, totally calm, with no hint of being “Taken” in her voice. I panted into the phone, unable to speak as waves of relief started to hit me.
She went on. “I waited in Starbucks for a really long time.” She didn’t see her friend’s babysitter, but she ordered a drink. The line was long and the barista got her order wrong, so she had little confidence that the Starbucks employees were going to be much help. So she left.
I finally mustered some words:
“Where are you? Are you O.K.?” I panted.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “I walked to the really nice apartment building next to Starbucks and asked the doorman to use the phone.”
Insert choir of angels here. My child was alive and unscathed. It turned out she and the babysitter were each waiting at a different Starbucks within a block of one another! Pro tip: Always plan your coffee shop rendezvous using a precise address.
My daughter had assessed the situation and used social cues to look for a capable (non-kidnapper-y) adult who could help. After receiving less than stellar customer service from those in charge of making her mango passion tea, she opted for the swank TriBeCa lobby with a doorman. She had to muster the confidence to enter a strange building and ask to use the phone.
She nailed it.
After doing a mini happy dance on a stretcher (much to the chagrin of my other daughter waiting for the bone in her hand to be set) I got in touch with the sitter, who promptly collected my child from the apartment lobby. She got to her friend’s house, watched “Dancing With the Stars” with her family and had a wonderful weeknight sleepover.
For me, the incident provided reassurance that my kid was actually quite safe without a smartphone. Not only was her face not glued to a screen as she sat alone in a coffee shop, unaware of her surroundings; she was also alert and observing the people around her. She spoke to an adult, advocated for herself and calmly handled the situation, making good choices. Score one for the analog world. And score one for any parent bearing down on the hard road of delaying a smartphone.
What I learned that night was that devices don’t make our kids safer; we do. We are the ones who can teach them how to deal with challenges better than any gadget. But I concede that I also saw how my anti-phone stance could have backfired. Certainly, communication becomes a necessity as tweens and teens begin to travel alone.
Our family is now shopping for a screen-free flip phone. Nope, not cool at all. And I’m totally O.K. with that for now. Because I know that my kid will be just fine swimming against the tide.
I’m also planning to sit both girls down for a “Taken” movie marathon for good measure.