Not being a parent, a fellow author asked if kids nine to twelve would typically have cell phones. Several folks answered in the affirmative—one reminded us of a Federal program to give flip-phones to seniors and underprivileged kids. This got me thinking. How many people today take this level of connectivity between parents and kids for granted and what has it meant for society?
I was born in the late forty’s and was dragged along with my military family as we toured the world. Like most people my age, I didn’t get a cell phone until the mid-’80s. As a kid living in Alexandria, Virginia, on Fort Bliss, Texas or in Bangkok, I never carried a cell phone—they didn’t exist. Sure, I had a walkie-talkie or an imaginary Dick Tracy wrist communicator, but never a cell phone.
So what did my mom do when she wanted me home for dinner or to know where I was some afternoon when the Texas sky turned ugly? She couldn’t call me. What did I do when I wanted to talk to my friends or ask mom if I could stay overnight at Bob’s? We used the phone occasionally, but not as much as kids raised in the States. Well, as you might imagine, things were different back then. Moms and dads didn’t really know where their kids were after dark or even during the daylight hours when we were supposed to be in school. They assumed we were where we were supposed to be—at least approximately. When we said we were going out to play, or explore, they assumed we would stay within a five-mile radius of the house. We did—for the most part. They trusted us to come home “before the street lights come on.” And we did or paid the consequences. It all about trust and rules.
Imagine what my mom when through when I shouted upstairs as I left for the day. “I’m going into town for go-kart parts.” In my case, I was going into the bowels of Bangkok by taxi, by myself at age fifteen. Sure, perhaps you would trust your fifteen-year-old could do the same, and as a parent, you might be worried about any number of evils that might befall your teenage son. And there were temptations. Drugs, prostitution, thieves, and crooked store clerks. But she also knew there were kind, helpful, generous and watchful people (and parents) all along the way. Moreover, she trusted me and I wanted never to betray that trust. Did I have adventures and close calls? Sure, and a bruise or lost wallet or two to show for it. Did I survive? Sure.
So I was a boy, a young man. Would I have been more vulnerable as a girl, a pretty young woman? I expect so. But then, perhaps I would have been even more careful, more vigilant, less naive and would still have survived relatively unscathed. I might have asked a friend or two to come along because I wasn’t stupid or didn’t want to tempt fate.
But I did all of this without a cell phone. If my mom got worried, she would check her watch and go about her day, but there was nothing she could do. Not really. She had to trust me and trust the world to take care of her son. Perhaps that’s the issue. Perhaps we as Americans have been programmed by the media to not trust the world. Are there more people out there who want to harm kids? Perhaps, but per-capita, there are more concerned, loving, protective adults who would shelter them and risk their lives to pull them out of a burning car or a rushing river.
Of course, my mom depended on the mom’s network. When I or my brothers were seen across base doing something we oughtn’t, she heard about it long before we got home. “Hi mom, I’m home,” I said, letting the screen door slam.
“Bill, were you over in the headquarters building this afternoon?” she asked, putting down her dishtowel.
“Me?” I carefully considered my answer. I knew I had been but had no idea she could possibly find out we had been playing with the elevator. “Why do you ask?”
“Come in here.”
I knew we were in trouble. Again. She had that scowl every boy knows on her face. “Yeah… yes, ma’am.”
At this point, she detailed what she had heard and gave me (and my brothers who were often less forthcoming) a chance to explain why the Colonel’s secretary had called her. So yes, there were phones back then too. And they were our nemesis. Mom reminded us of the rules and explained the new, more detailed variations now appended to this unwritten contract. “No, you will not use the elevator in the headquarters building for any purpose.”
“No buts,” she admonished.
“Are you going to tell dad?” I asked, dreading what he would do if he found out.
“We’ll see. Get cleaned up for dinner.”
Today, parents don’t seem to trust their kids at all—even with the tiniest details of life. At age seven or seventeen, they don’t trust them to get themselves up—they’re at the foot of the bed wiggling feet when it’s time to get in the shower, standing over the table as they eat breakfast encouraging them to hurry. “Did you remember your books? What about your lunch or that permission slip?” Each time we as parents intervene, remind our kids, or drive to school with that missing assignment, we show we don’t trust them to be responsible for themselves. Being a parent is hard, but sometimes it’s harder to let the kids forget that they didn’t charge their cell phone or bring an extra pair of panties on that overnight trip. We learned from our mistakes. So should kids. 99.999% of the time, those mistakes don’t really injure the kids.
It does not take much to imagine any number of circumstances where we lose the Internet, we lose cell service or the ability to track our kids within GPS accuracy. Perhaps it would make sense to practice that contingency—and learn to trust our kids and our nation to take care of them when we’re not hovering overhead.