"Do you have Mason? He didn't get off the bus. The other kids don't know where he is."
I was pretending to watch Paw Patrol with my 3-year-old daughter when my iPhone pinged. My neighbor had texted me from the middle school bus stop to let me know that my oldest child, a 13-year-old eighth grader, was missing.
With adrenaline coursing through my veins, my world suddenly stopped and narrowed. "No?" I texted back quickly, then punched Mason's cell number into my phone. No answer. Straight to voice mail. Twice, then three times.
I called my neighbor, who was still at the bus stop with the rest of our kids, including my second son. She suggested that maybe Mason had missed the bus, but it had been an hour since school let out; he would have contacted me by then. After questioning the other kids, we determined that Mason had actually ridden the bus home but had missed his stop, probably because he had fallen asleep.
I called the school and retrieved the number for the county school transportation office. The operator there called my son's bus driver, and although she initially couldn't see him on the bus - cue my heart dropping into the depths of my stomach - she pulled over and searched the seats. She finally found him hunched down and asleep in a back row.
I thought I might throw up even as relief washed over me and I was hit with all kinds of emotions: Disbelief, because who knew I still had to worry about my 13-year-old on the school bus? Gratitude for my neighbor who looked out for my child. Anger and love, almost in equal quantities, for the boy who had nearly given me a heart attack.
"You didn't answer your phone!" I exclaimed indignantly when my errant child was finally in my car and I had hugged him hard. "It's dead," he answered nonchalantly. "Chill out, Mom. I just fell asleep. It's no big deal."
"Your new bedtime is 7 p.m. until you're 40," I declared through clenched teeth. "Maybe you don't need a phone. What good is it if it doesn't work in times like these?"
That's why he has a cell phone, after all. My middle-school children go to a magnet school 30 minutes away from home. The school encourages the students to bring devices - though not necessarily phones - and they can use them only during designated times for Internet research, during lunch, and before and after school. The teachers often use text apps to communicate with students and their parents, and homework and assignments are posted online.
When my children went to middle school, I gave them cell phones before they could even ask for them. Even though they go to school in a carpool and ride the bus home almost every single day like clockwork, I wanted to be able to get in touch with them in case something went wrong, or in case they needed to tell me about a change in their transportation. I thought of the cell phones as safety nets: They made me feel better about sending them to middle school, especially across town.
Many of the problems parents worry about when considering cell phones for their children haven't been huge issues for us, at least as of now: My boys are not on social media. They rarely text their friends. They haven't sent any nude pictures of themselves or others, a rule we made clear the minute we put the phones in their hot little hands. They haven't searched for porn (or if they have, they have expertly covered their tracks).
So far, our biggest issues have been keeping the phones charged properly, enlightening the children about which apps drain our data and cost us a bajillion dollars at the end of the month, and keeping them from playing Crossy Road until the wee hours on school nights (see above re: falling asleep on the bus).
However, after my son's epic bus ride home and my resulting 30 minutes of terror, I had an epiphany about my parenting and my cell phone toting middle-schoolers. By giving them cell phones, I had inadvertently placed an expectation and a burden on my children that I did not experience until my 30s: that they could, and should, be reachable every moment of the day.
Because I had a childhood only a few miles away from where my own children are growing up comprised of long bike rides and walks, lost afternoons playing alone in my own backyard, and meandering home from the bus stop with friends without my mother pinging me, I should have realized that giving my children phones, I was ending that kind of independence for them.
For instance, when I was growing up and felt sick at school, I had to go to the school clinic and actually talk to a nurse about whether I should go home. Now, my children simply text me in between classes if they feel sick. "I think I have a fever. Come get me?" I have noted that the front desk receptionist never seems surprised when I show up out of the blue and tell her my child is sick and I have come to take him home, even though it is news to everyone except me and my child.
On more than one occasion, I have used the county school system's internet portal to look up my children's grades in the middle of the day. "What happened on that geometry test??" I text to my eighth grader. "MOM! NO TEXTING DURING SCHOOL!" comes the reply. Oops, right, of course.
I can text my son to find out if he made the school volleyball team before he comes home. I can call him from another room in the house to ask him if he wants pizza or spaghetti for dinner. If they are late getting home from the bus stop, I can text them and ask where they are. This is all very efficient, but have I taken something from my kids in the name of my own convenience and reassurance that they are instantly accessible (and also safe, intact, not injured, not kidnapped. . .)?
I'm no luddite. I love technology, I love the Internet. I run my house with Amazon Prime, I am blindly loyal to all things Apple, I can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I'm all in. But I have a love-hate relationship with my own enslavement to the same technology I depend on so much: my husband and I are almost never unreachable, never out of touch, never unable to respond, whether to family, friends, or work. That's our own fault, but it's also a common expectation in a society when we can now wear watches to alert us to news from the cell phones in our pockets that enable us to work from anywhere at any time.
It's too late for me and my husband; there's no turning back. But for my children? There was time. I realize now that I wanted them to be reachable at all times not simply for their safety, but for mine; I wanted reassurance in the form of a sort of digital umbilical cord. Maybe that was selfish and short-sighted.
The truth is, my children don't need to be reachable every moment - even to me - to be safe. As our experience with the middle school bus showed me, a cell phone is no safety net, but other human beings are. My children are in a carpool with other parents I trust. They ride home on a school bus full of other children and a driver with a phone. They are at school all day with teachers and administrators charged with their care and well being. They go to practices with coaches who can help them if they need it. Yes, I like the idea of being able to call them or text them at will, but at what cost to my children? Do my children deserve to be able to get lost sometimes, to figure it things out for themselves, to allow the network of adults around them to do their jobs and be their safety net until they come back to me?
I have two younger children, and while I can't promise what I will do about them when they are middle school age, right now, my hope is to wait. They'll have access to devices like iPads - they already do. They might even be able to text. But no one expects someone to always have an iPad on their person. It's a different vibe and expectation than a phone.
I spend a lot of time telling my kids that they have to wait for some things: Rated R movies. Mature video games. Brand new phones instead of family hand-me-downs. Drivers' licenses. I tell them that part of the experience of growing up is that you don't get everything at once and when you want it. But as we acquire the trappings of adulthood, we also acquire the burdens. I accidentally gave my children one of them a little earlier than I hoped. There is plenty of time for them to be on call for the world. Until then, it's up to me to relieve them from that duty until absolutely necessary.
Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor and the mother of four children. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter @allisonstate, or at her Web site.