Get Your Kid On The Phone – And Off The Computer!

Back in the day, when kids turned “tween” they began their love affair with the telephone. By the time they were well into their teens, it was practically impossible to get them off. It was THE main social connector of the day and the dream-of-dreams for most kids 12 and up was to have their very own, tucked away from prying ears, in their bedroom. If you were a girl, you probably coveted that cute little princess model, in pink, if possible.

Since most families had but one line, competition for the telephone was fierce, especially if there were a bunch of siblings to contend with. Parents constantly complained about the hours their adolescents spent holed up in a closet or hallway, cord pulled to the busting point, straining to get a little privacy and the latest news from their buds.

And since there was no voice mail, answering machine, or call-waiting, Mom and Dad missed quite a few calls of their own. “Get off that phone this minute or you’re in big trouble!” was a familiar parental rant, but truth be told the telephone was (and is) a fantastic tool — possibly one of the best for helping kids master some of the important tasks of adolescence. Surprised?

The teen years are all about finding an identity separate from one’s family and adolescents try on lots of different hats on the way to discovering who they are. Up until the time when their voices start to crack or their breasts begin to bud, kids derive their strength, values and views of themselves and the world from their families — particularly their parents.

But as their bodies and minds begin to morph into what will eventually become adults they start to look outside of their home for clues about who they are and what they truly think and believe. They struggle to gain a sense of independence and competence so that they will be able to make it on their own in the adult world.

As a result, the peer group gains supreme status and finding a way to fit in and compete becomes central to their lives. They get there through a lot of practice and experimentation but there are so many tasks to master — and all within a few short years.

One of their biggest tasks is to learn how to interact with their peers in a more adult way. They must develop a set of social skills that they can rely upon to help them make friends and see them through the stickiest of social situations. They are learning how to stand up for themselves and what they believe in; who to trust; how to ask for help and how to deal with disappointment.

They have to learn to accept their new bodies — warts and all. If they are too tall or too short, have a big nose or a pimply complexion, it can be rough and can undermine their sense of self confidence.

As if that weren’t enough, adolescents must also figure out how to deal more maturely with conflict — like how to resolve a fight or manage a disagreement — and also how to get up the nerve to talk to the boy or girl who makes their heart go pitter-patter.

Frankly, I get exhausted just thinking about all they have to accomplish! No wonder they can be so grouchy and feel the need to hide out alone in their rooms sometimes.

When you think about it, they must change themselves from children into grown-ups and there is a lot of trial and error along the way. For years, adolescents have one foot in each world and it’s as confusing to them as it is for us.

But this is where the telephone can come in handy. When a teen or ‘tween is talking to a friend about a difficult subject, she can practice reading between the lines of what is being said. She can learn to recognize how a person’s tone of voice or brief hesitation before answering adds meaning to what he or she is saying.

She (or he) can practice talking to someone of the opposite sex without worrying about whether her face is red or her palms are sweaty. She can try out being a little bossy or confrontational or, on the other hand, sweet and sensitive without fear of being overheard or laughed at. She can open her heart and her feelings while pacing the room or squeezing shut her eyes. And there is great comfort in knowing she can hang up if it gets too weird or too hard.

This is tough stuff to do and the beauty of the telephone is that it allows adolescents to practice it all without the intensity that goes along with a face-to-face interaction. It provides a little bit of emotional and psychological protection while they are learning to build good social skills and develop meaningful relationships with their friends.

It doesn’t work the same with the computer or text messaging though. Not at all. They miss out on the chance to learn how to recognize the subtleties of tone of voice, they don’t get to practice how to deal with an awkward silence, they can’t practice saying “no” and meaning it. Of course there is a place for texting and communicating through the computer but nothing beats the good old-fashiioned telephone when it comes to building social skills and practicing more grown-up behavior.

It’s tempting to give in when your kids want to stay in touch using the latest gadgets around. You might figure that this is just the way it is now, end of story. But I would ask you to think twice, especially while your children are pre or young teens.

When my daughter was in eighth grade we began to realize that she was spending a fair amount of time IM-ing (instant messaging) her friends when she was supposed to be doing her homework. It became clear pretty quickly that this was NOT a good thing either for her schoolwork and concentration skills or her friendships.

So we decided to disable it. She was pretty angry at first and accused us of not wanting her to have a social life. But we countered that the opposite was true: we DID want her to have a social life but that meant she had to develop real relationships with her friends. So we encouraged her to give her friends a call – one at a time – and talk her heart out when the mood struck.

The IM thing (and email and text messaging) doesn’t allow for that. Instead it often creates a kind of situation where they end up behaving in ways that they never would, one-on-one.

Worst case scenario is that they say things they don’t mean, misinterpret what is said to them, or find themselves involved in hurting someone’s feelings as things heat up and spiral out of control. Best case scenario is that they simply miss out on the opportunity to learn how to communicate effectively with sensitivity and polish.

The other negative about relying on the computer is that once posted, their words (good or bad) are out there forever. The internet does not discriminate and it’s very easy for an angry or upset teen to hit “send” and instantly distribute the conversation all over the planet.

So go ahead and encourage your teen to turn off the computer and pick up the phone instead. Advise her not to text, email or g-chat when she’s got something important to say. Urge her to take advantage of Alexander Bell’s amazing invention to learn about tone of voice with all it’s fine distinctions and to get comfortable with having those difficult but all-important conversations aloud.

You will be doing a lot to help them face and master some of the daunting tasks of adolescence and they will thank you for it later. Promise.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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