by MIA FREEDMAN
The woman outside the supermarket had something to say to my father. She marched over to him angrily with her face full of disdain. “How can you keep your child on a leash?” she exclaimed, gesturing to the tethered toddler trotting happily beside him. “Children are people! Not dogs! What a disgrace!”
Taking a deep breath, my father patiently explained why his recalcitrant daughter was attached to a harness. Except not patiently. “Would you prefer me to let her run onto the road?” he replied. “How about I mind my child and you mind your own business.”
The kid on the end of that leash was me, of course. You see, I was a mad dasher. I don’t recall being leashed and it’s never come up in therapy so I assume any emotional damage was negligible. As opposed to the physical damage involved in running into traffic.
As a parent myself now, I’ve given the leash thing a whirl with each of my own kids although these days they’re innocuously cute backpacks in the shape of puppies and monkeys whose long tails that parents can hold. People still go a bit nuts about leashes though. They’re polarising.
Personally, my view is that there are far worse things a parent can do to their child than be so concerned for their safety that they go to the trouble of buying a leash and getting their kid to wear it.
But it’s not just runaway toddlers being leashed. Today, mobile phones are the new leash, tethering older kids and even teenagers to their parents for better and worse.
I have lots of friends deciding whether to buy phones for their kids at the moment. Over dinner recently, my eyes were rolling as one close friend explained why her 10yo daughter wouldn’t be getting one. “We’ve found the nearest public phones near school and home and she always has the right change. We’ve discussed different ways to ask for help if she needs it; going into a shop, looking for a police officer….it’s how we grew up and we were fine.
“But life is different now!” I spluttered. “There’s no point in teaching kids to use a public phone in 2012! That’s about as useful as knowing how to make a mixed tape from the radio!”
But finally, something went ka-ching and I got her point. Teaching kids to use their judgement and problem solving skills is not just about using a pay phone. It’s about learning how to get themselves out of trouble and using critical thought to make a decision, the same skills they’ll need one day to decide whether to get in a car with a wobbly driver after a party.
We gave our eldest son an old phone when he was about 11. I was keen for him to have one, not for his convenience but for mine.
Our life is busy and unpredictable and I am often disorganised, unprepared and forgetful. Like many working families, our childcare arrangements are an intricate house of cards held up with string, some spit and several crossed fingers.
It collapses all the time. Pick-ups and drop-offs are a movable feast, if by feast you mean shambles. Once they reach a certain age, I find much of the logistical side of parenting happens via mobile. Arrangements change, traffic is unpredictable, kids forget to tell you where they are – and mobiles help you navigate that more flexibly.
They can also help ease a tween or teen’s move towards independence. Frankly, I like knowing where my teenager is and being able to reach him 24/7. And him me. But is that true independence? Are mobile phones the new leash?
Schools have different rules. Some insist students hand in their mobile phones at the start of the day while others expect them to take responsibility and carry them around.
Happily, my son’s school is the latter. I sometimes find myself texting him during the day and feeling irritated when he doesn’t reply straight away. Oh that’s right, I eventually remember. It’s 2pm and he’s in class. Being educated.
So what are kids missing out on by being tethered to us by their phones? One friend’s son regularly forgets his house keys. But instead of sucking it up on the doorstep until someone comes home, he just uses his phone to call his parents or grandparents who come to his rescue every time. No consequences.
Another friend worries about life skills. “My 12 year old got off at the wrong bus stop the other day and immediately called my husband to come pick her even though she wasn’t far from home. She knows the area. It was daylight and she could have worked out where she was and navigated a safe route home. But she didn’t need to do that because she knew we’d come and save her. Our kids just aren’t learning to navigate daily life like we did because phones fix every problem. You no longer have to seek information from actual people, you just hit speed dial.”
I have a hundred benign memories of waiting for my parents to pick me up. They were often late. And I waited. Along with all the other kids who were waiting. Parents have been late for centuries. Children have coped. But now I can guarantee I’ll have a text message or missed call from my teenager 30 seconds after our agreed pick-up time – to see where I am.
Who’s on the leash again?
Does your son or daughter have a mobile phone? Would you give them one? When did you get a phone?