Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No Phone Zone for the Old Crone

Is there anything worse than listening to a 13 year old girl make plans with a friend over the phone? "So, I'll walk to your house after I babysit. What? What time is your soccer practice over? What? Jennifer, I talked about this with you already! Oh my god. So what if I come over…what? (long silence.) Ok, so if come over after I babysit then I will just wait for you. I can do my homework on your computer…what? Your mom and dad won't care! What time is soccer practice over?"

Yes, there is something worse. Having that conversation unfurl while you are driving that child home in your carpool, fuming over whether she thinks you are a taxi driver or WHAT. Just give me the root canal without anesthesia, why don't you?

My oldest daughter is in middle school. As soon as the kids spew onto the lawn each day to wait for pickup, the phones that have been set to the off position since 8:15 and tucked into a pocket are flipped open, up, and on. Never mind that they've just been given a rare interval between school and homework to connect with friends who are standing within arm's reach. They're all peering into tiny screens too. I sit in the idling car watching them and resisting the urge to shout, "You're 12! You're just not that important!"

My husband and I have a few families in the neighborhood with whom we confer on things like how old you have to be for pierced ears, makeup, and unaccompanied walks to the overpriced yogurt store. Our kids spend a lot of time together and we like to freak them out by presenting a united front. The rule of thumb for cell phones has always been, "When I don't know exactly where you are, 24 hours a day, you can have a phone. We're not there yet."

But by the end of sixth grade our daughter was starting to do some babysitting, and also wanted to walk to her friend's houses to visit them instead of asking us to drive her - give her credit for knowing which buttons to push. I also began to realize that texting is to today's middle schoolers as epic three hour phone calls were to my friends and I back in the Twelve Corners Elementary School days: just behind breathing, food, and water on the Maslow needs hierarchy. My parents surely wondered why Mary Beth Fitz and I couldn't just cross the sixty feet between our houses to talk in person, instead of rehashing our day on the banana yellow wall phone.

So we finally took the leap (as did the other families in the cabal, within a few weeks of one another.)  We bought her a new phone at the end of June, saddled it with lots of rules regarding phone etiquette and usage limits, and stood back with trepidation to watch what happened.

Three months later, I would estimate that the amount of time the little blue phone spends uncharged or left behind on the kitchen table is about 80%. To paraphrase the book title, She's Just Not That Into Her Phone. I don't know why, and I don't plan to ask. So a rule for "no making calls in the car when someone is kindly giving you a ride somewhere" was unnecessary until the autumn carpool season kicked off.

Of course it's not just a matter of politeness; today's backseat yakkers will be tomorrow's drivers, trying to update their Facebook profiles as they swerve into ditches. According to Distraction.Gov, the official US Government web site for distracted driving:
  • In 2008, almost 20 percent of all crashes in the year involved some type of distraction. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - NHTSA).
  • Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than half a million were injured. (NHTSA) 
  • The younger, inexperienced drivers under 20 years old have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes.
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  • Using a cell phone use while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)
One of my friends said, "I just put on my biggest fakey smile and said, 'Hey kids, there's a new rule in my car this year! No phones!'  As if that is a big treat for them." She added, "My daughter's eye rolling was actually audible." Now, this friend has a leg to stand on; she will not talk on her own phone while driving because she never figured out how to hook it up the car's hands-free microphone, and her kids know it. She is modeling polite and safe phone use in the car, which is to say, not using it at all.

I, on the other hand, am on much shakier ground.

As a freelance writer juggling clients, deadlines, the driving needs of two children in two different schools, and a whole passel of family living three time zones away, I often find myself needing to return calls and drive places simultaneously.

I know I shouldn't talk on the phone when I drive, hands-free device or not, so I fight the urge to dial or try to pull off before answering my snappy Neil Finn ring tone.  But I succumb now and then. For what it's worth (not much,) any luck I've had in not hurting anyone or getting arrested by the cops for talking and driving has been more than subsumed by my own self-loathing as I place a call.

So how can I get uppity and tell the kids the car is a Oprah-sanctioned "no phone zone" when I don't abide by it myself? The answer is, I can't.

Would you parents out there agree with me that the hardest part of raising kids is raising your own standards of behavior?  I've already learned this lesson as it pertains to making my bed in the morning, sending thank you notes promptly, and not consuming a 100% starch diet. If I can't stick to house rules, teaching them to our two daughters is made infinitely more difficult.

So come Monday I'll be plastering on that hammy smile as I inform my passengers that from here on out, the only talking allowed in the car is to the other occupants thereof.

Which is all just a long way of saying, if you're waiting for a call for me about what time I'm coming over after babysitting but before soccer practice, you're going to have to wait. I'm just not that important and besides, the kids won't let me use the phone in the car.


  1. You've nailed it, Nancy. Never ask your kids to do something you can't do consistently yourself. My weakness: getting enough sleep. Also: not getting distracted. How can I expect my kids to focus on the task at hand if I'm all over the place? :-)

  2. hey Ed - no, no phone use in the car means no phone use in the car. It's an 8 minute drive- good practice in making small talk which everybody needs to know how to do at some point!

    Christine - did you ever see the episode of Modern Family where the father is riding herd over the boy doing homework, for fear he'll lose focus...then the dad goes in the garage to get something for the assignment and gets so completely distracted by one thing after the next that ten minutes later he's lying under a collapsed shelf full of sporting equipment. Classic.


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