Your Grade-Schooler Doesn’t Need a Cell Phone

ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which argues against giving cell phones to young children, originally appeared as part of the “Debate Club” series in the digital publication Parent.co.

It happened nearly a decade ago: My third-grader had just climbed into the school bus and as I watched her take a seat from my spot on the sidewalk, I noticed another child gazing vacantly out the bus window as he chatted on a cell phone. Who’s on the other end of that call? I wondered. And what could possibly be so important that a 10-year-old needs a phone – at 8:30 a.m., no less?

I thought about that boy all day. While I could envision situations where it might be handy for a child to have his or her own phone – a kid is hurt or needs a ride home, a parent wants to convey an urgent message – I couldn’t find a way to justify purchasing a cell phone for a child that young. I still can’t.

As adults, I think we can all admit to a certain level of addiction to, or at least heavy reliance on, our phones. We use them for everything from calls and email, to maps and shopping. They make life infinitely easier. Though my husband and I were late adopters who didn’t succumb to mobile phones until the mid-2000s, I can no longer imagine trying to navigate life – both literally and figuratively – without a smart phone.

Sometimes, however, the convenience of phone ownership begins to feel more like a burden. There is stress attached to checking incessant call, text, email, and app notifications; monitoring data usage to avoid overage charges; and protecting devices from loss, breakage, and theft. Are those concerns kids need to manage while they’re still learning the ropes of life in elementary school? I don’t think so.

In addition to being unnecessary worries and distractions, cell phones are also viewed as status symbols, expensive devices that contribute to low self-esteem by highlighting the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” When she saw that boy on the bus with the cell phone in elementary school, my daughter immediately assumed he was wealthy and we were poor because she didn’t have a phone. In reality, cost didn’t factor heavily into our decision to postpone her phone.

While there are benefits to having round-the-clock access to our children, there is no realneed for it, especially during school hours. We all grew up without individual phones and our parents had no trouble getting messages to us in the classroom. School staff and teachers are still happy to communicate information between parents and their children. If you’re sending a friend to pick up your kid at school, someone from the office will let her know. If your child gets sick and needs to go home, the school nurse will find a way to get in touch.

When young kids aren’t at school, most parents know exactly where they are and all of those places – home, a friend’s home, after-school programs, sports programs, etc. – offer landlines and/or supervising adults with cell phones that children and their parents can use to communicate.

Some might consider withholding immediate access to parents or caregivers via cell phone as unfair or even cruel, but it actually allows children to think independently and become more self-reliant. If, for example, a student forgets his homework and his teacher won’t let him call someone to bring it to school, that’s unfortunate, but turning an assignment in late provides a valuable life lesson about responsibility and preparedness.

When should kids get cell phones? That’s obviously up to their parents, but in my experience, middle school seems to be about right. School work, athletics, and activity schedules tend to ramp up in middle school, and teachers, coaches, and program administrators begin relying more heavily on electronic communication. When my daughter played field hockey in eighth grade, for instance, her coach shared information through email and a team Facebook page. If after-school practice was changed or cancelled during the school day and my daughter didn’t have access to the internet, her only hope of getting that information was from a teammate with a phone.

There are exceptions, of course, but in general, I believe that giving mobile phones to grade-schoolers benefits adults, not children. Young kids may think it’s cool or fun to have a phone, but it’s unfair to try to alleviate our own parental anxieties by burdening our offspring with additional, undue stress and responsibility. I say we let children be children, as carefree and unencumbered as possible, for as long as we can.

When Being a Foster Parent is the Most Heartbreaking Love

ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which offers a glimpse into one of our foster parenting experiences and challenges assumptions that are often made about parents with children in foster care, originally appeared in the digital publication Parent.co.

Ana’s joyous screeching carries through the house and wakes my 16-year-old from her afternoon nap.

“You suck,” the surly teen growls at the boisterous infant before bending down to kiss her downy head as it bobs up and down in the Exersaucer.

Both of our daughters, our biological children, have been remarkably loving and accommodating with this baby – far more so than they were with the puppy they promised to care for when my husband and I relented to their begging five years ago.

“If we’re going to become a foster family, we have to be all in,” I told them when the discussions began nine months ago. “Everyone has to help, especially if we get really little kids. If any one of us has doubts about this, then we just can’t do it.”

Our girls have made good on this promise.

She is perfect, this smiley little Ana with the enormous blue eyes. Though the fatigue that comes from waking at night to attend to a six-month-old has confirmed my belief that babies are a young person’s game, the awareness that she will eventually return to her parents offers a sense of relief that is both optimistic and wistful. The thankless drudgery of caring for a tiny, helpless human won’t drag on for years, but neither will the pure delight.

Ana’s parents, Sandra and Tim Thompson, are always in the back of my mind, like a low-grade headache. Did she sleep through the night for them? Would her dad take her out in this cold? Will her mom like this outfit? For some foster parents, particularly those interested in adopting their charges, I imagine a tepid or antagonistic relationship with a child’s biological parents might offer a protective emotional barrier. My husband and I are not looking to adopt, however, and I bear no ill will toward Sandra and Tim. I want to do right by them.

Every Wednesday, I take Ana to the Children and Youth Services office for a one-hour visitation with her parents. I am humble and gracious when I see them, always striving to make sure they know that I understand this is their baby, not mine.

The Thompsons sent a good-sized wardrobe along with their daughter when she was forcibly, unexpectedly removed from their home, but the seasons were changing and she needed warmer attire. I purchased several new outfits with a clothing voucher from CYS, but when I’m getting Ana ready for visitations, I always make sure to dress her in something Sandra and Tim sent so they don’t think that I think their clothes aren’t good enough.

One Wednesday, as the Thompsons and I rode together in the elevator to the third-floor CYS office, a stranger inside the cab was fawning over the infant in my stroller and asked her age. I consciously stopped myself from replying and allowed Sandra to explain that Ana would be six months old the following week.

That day, answering questions about the cute baby in the soft, floppy hat was her mother’s privilege, bragging rights she hadn’t enjoyed for weeks. I have plenty of opportunities to gush about Ana, but on visitation days, I’m just the stroller jockey.

The Thompsons lost custody of their baby because CYS found evidence of drug use in their home — what types of drugs and how much, I’ll never know. Her caseworker initially told us that Ana would be with our family for at least a month, when her parents had their first custody hearing. If the Thompsons attended scheduled visitations, passed their regular drug tests, and received substance abuse counseling, they could regain custody of the child after the hearing. If not, Ana could remain in our care for an additional six months.

This is the story I repeat to friends and acquaintances I encounter when I’m out with the baby in our town, a sleepy suburb west of Philadelphia. My words are often met with a sad, sympathetic gaze at Ana and an eye roll that silently conveys disgust at the child’s situation: How could her parents be so irresponsible? How could they choose drugs over their baby? The response often smacks of hypocrisy.

While our family has provided care for the children of individuals making bad life choices or failing to put the well-being of their children first, it’s wrong to assume that every child in foster care is there because his or her parents don’t love them or aren’t trying. Sometimes, there’s a lot more to the story.

When the Thompsons, a low-income working family, asked for assistance from CYS, they willingly opened themselves up to a kind of scrutiny that the financially secure parents of our community don’t have to endure and would certainly never tolerate. The fact that there was evidence of drugs in their home doesn’t necessarily mean Sandra and Tim are bad people or incompetent parents; they clearly love their daughter and took great care of her, despite their substance abuse issues. When their baby came to us, she was in excellent condition: alert, healthy, and above average weight, with the disposition of an angel.

The privilege enjoyed by the residents of our community doesn’t make them better or worse parents than Ana’s. They are not saints (neither am I) and I bristle at their blind assumptions. Though I am not a religious person, I’ve had a single phrase stuck in my head since the day I first met Sandra and Tim Thompson: There but for the grace of God go I.

“Will it be hard to let this little girl go back to her parents?” people always ask me. “Don’t you want to keep her?”

My answer is always immediate and unequivocal: No. When the time comes, we will happily surrender this baby to the Thompsons. They are decent people and competent parents, and I have no reservations about returning their child to them. Though we will miss Ana’s joyous screeching, downy head, and enormous blue eyes, she was never ours to keep. Ana was always a borrowed baby with a strict repayment schedule, here with us for a little while before returning to live out her own unique story, separate from ours.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

How to Love a Baby Who’s Not Yours to Keep


ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which offers a glimpse into one of our foster parenting experiences and challenges assumptions that are often made about parents with children in foster care
, originally appeared in the digital publication Parent.co.

Ana’s joyous screeching carries through the house and wakes my 16-year-old from her afternoon nap.

“You suck,” the surly teen growls at the boisterous infant before bending down to kiss her downy head as it bobs up and down in the Exersaucer.

Both of our daughters, our biological children, have been remarkably loving and accommodating with this baby – far more so than they were with the puppy they promised to care for when my husband and I relented to their begging five years ago.

“If we’re going to become a foster family, we have to be all in,” I told them when the discussions began nine months ago. “Everyone has to help, especially if we get really little kids. If any one of us has doubts about this, then we just can’t do it.”

Our girls have made good on this promise.

She is perfect, this smiley little Ana with the enormous blue eyes. Though the fatigue that comes from waking at night to attend to a six-month-old has confirmed my belief that babies are a young person’s game, the awareness that she will eventually return to her parents offers a sense of relief that is both optimistic and wistful. The thankless drudgery of caring for a tiny, helpless human won’t drag on for years, but neither will the pure delight.

Ana’s parents, Sandra and Tim Thompson, are always in the back of my mind, like a low-grade headache. Did she sleep through the night for them? Would her dad take her out in this cold? Will her mom like this outfit? For some foster parents, particularly those interested in adopting their charges, I imagine a tepid or antagonistic relationship with a child’s biological parents might offer a protective emotional barrier. My husband and I are not looking to adopt, however, and I bear no ill will toward Sandra and Tim. I want to do right by them.

Every Wednesday, I take Ana to the Children and Youth Services office for a one-hour visitation with her parents. I am humble and gracious when I see them, always striving to make sure they know that I understand this is their baby, not mine.

The Thompsons sent a good-sized wardrobe along with their daughter when she was forcibly, unexpectedly removed from their home, but the seasons were changing and she needed warmer attire. I purchased several new outfits with a clothing voucher from CYS, but when I’m getting Ana ready for visitations, I always make sure to dress her in something Sandra and Tim sent so they don’t think that I think their clothes aren’t good enough.

One Wednesday, as the Thompsons and I rode together in the elevator to the third-floor CYS office, a stranger inside the cab was fawning over the infant in my stroller and asked her age. I consciously stopped myself from replying and allowed Sandra to explain that Ana would be six months old the following week.

That day, answering questions about the cute baby in the soft, floppy hat was her mother’s privilege, bragging rights she hadn’t enjoyed for weeks. I have plenty of opportunities to gush about Ana, but on visitation days, I’m just the stroller jockey.

The Thompsons lost custody of their baby because CYS found evidence of drug use in their home — what types of drugs and how much, I’ll never know. Her caseworker initially told us that Ana would be with our family for at least a month, when her parents had their first custody hearing. If the Thompsons attended scheduled visitations, passed their regular drug tests, and received substance abuse counseling, they could regain custody of the child after the hearing. If not, Ana could remain in our care for an additional six months.

This is the story I repeat to friends and acquaintances I encounter when I’m out with the baby in our town, a sleepy suburb west of Philadelphia. My words are often met with a sad, sympathetic gaze at Ana and an eye roll that silently conveys disgust at the child’s situation: How could her parents be so irresponsible? How could they choose drugs over their baby? The response often smacks of hypocrisy.

While our family has provided care for the children of individuals making bad life choices or failing to put the well-being of their children first, it’s wrong to assume that every child in foster care is there because his or her parents don’t love them or aren’t trying. Sometimes, there’s a lot more to the story.

When the Thompsons, a low-income working family, asked for assistance from CYS, they willingly opened themselves up to a kind of scrutiny that the financially secure parents of our community don’t have to endure and would certainly never tolerate. The fact that there was evidence of drugs in their home doesn’t necessarily mean Sandra and Tim are bad people or incompetent parents; they clearly love their daughter and took great care of her, despite their substance abuse issues. When their baby came to us, she was in excellent condition: alert, healthy, and above average weight, with the disposition of an angel.

The privilege enjoyed by the residents of our community doesn’t make them better or worse parents than Ana’s. They are not saints (neither am I) and I bristle at their blind assumptions. Though I am not a religious person, I’ve had a single phrase stuck in my head since the day I first met Sandra and Tim Thompson: There but for the grace of God go I.

“Will it be hard to let this little girl go back to her parents?” people always ask me. “Don’t you want to keep her?”

My answer is always immediate and unequivocal: No. When the time comes, we will happily surrender this baby to the Thompsons. They are decent people and competent parents, and I have no reservations about returning their child to them. Though we will miss Ana’s joyous screeching, downy head, and enormous blue eyes, she was never ours to keep. Ana was always a borrowed baby with a strict repayment schedule, here with us for a little while before returning to live out her own unique story, separate from ours.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.