During a recent gathering of families at a California park, a cluster of teenagers sat at the end of a picnic table sharing Snapchat videos and comparing game scores while my sons, ages 13 and 16, stood awkwardly to the side, hands in their pockets. It was a scene that has played out numerous times over the years as my sons have become just about the only kids their age, and in their circles, to not have cellphones.
When I tell people this, I am invariably asked questions or congratulated for "holding my ground." Many parents wonder how I'm able to "stay in touch" with my sons, as if they're off at some boarding school, rarely to be seen. My boys have been home-schooled all their lives, but that has little to do with their phone-free status; almost all their friends are home-schooled and have phones.
My boys' phone-free status is a byproduct of the fact that we have always been a low-tech household. I only entered the iPhone universe a few years ago, and have stubbornly remained married to the 5. My husband leaves his phone - also an iPhone 5 - in the car and uses it for nothing more than making calls. Our smart TV is a year old; before that, we watched television on a bulky Sony from the 1990s. We don't have any of those Alexa or Google Home gadgets.
As a family, we are the antithesis of "wired," which has dovetailed with our general lack of media consumption overall: My older son saw his first movie when he was 5 and was allowed to see only one movie a year till he turned 8. The television is never on during the day. We've never had a Wii, PlayStation or Xbox. A friend, whose son has all those things, describes our home life as "a bit 'Little House on the Prairie.' " (Which in itself goes back to something my husband said to me right before our first son was born: "Let's have Renaissance children. Art, literature, music.")
Somehow, we've also circumvented the practical necessities of having to arm our kids with phones. They are generally either with my husband or myself. If they are with a friend, another parent is on hand, so I've always had a way of reaching them. I always know where they are and whom they're with.
That doesn't mean there haven't been moments when I've thought a phone would be a good idea, especially for the older one, who started taking classes at community college when he was 14. (He's a musical whiz, adroitly handling Rachmaninoff's piano concerti and composing orchestral scores - so maybe there was something to the whole Renaissance bit after all.) At college, he began working on a duet with a 22-year old cellist named Alec. They had to set up a rehearsal schedule. Those texts went back and forth between my phone and Alec's. If I was waiting outside the building for them to finish, I had to ping Alec with an annoying, "Are you done yet?" Once, after my son got out of class 20 minutes early and was hanging around waiting for me to pick him up, I did ask him - begrudgingly - if he'd like a phone.
"Not yet," he said. "I don't want to be responsible for it."
I was profoundly relieved.
Since he turned 16, however, he has started to change his mind. He has seen the allure of the conviviality of the group text and has felt pained at the exclusion from the communication. He is often shut out of social events because he doesn't know about them. We have two landlines at home - more indicators of our prehistoric habits - and I encourage him to use them to call people he'd like to see. He says, perhaps rightly, "That's stupid. Nobody talks on the phone."
At Thanksgiving, he sat next to a girl his age, who was showing him her Instagram page. On the way home, for the first time, he said to me, "Can I have a phone?" For me, it was like the sudden end of a relationship. I asked him why. I needed to know what had changed. Was he unhappy? Bored? Lonely? What had I done?
"Chill, mom," he said. "It's just a phone."
I can't chill. The thought of handing him a smartphone fills me with anxiety. It signifies the end of his innocence and my control. It means unfettered access to an entire dark world, vulnerability to cybertrolls and bullies, secrets encased in a slender device tucked into his back pocket. I envision arguments over screen time, the use of the phone at the dinner table, the "who are you texting?" questions. I remind myself of the unnerving stories - the 15-year-old daughter of my neighbor who sneaked out at 2 a.m., called an Uber and went to a boyfriend's house; of teens getting drunk together on FaceTime, of sharing Tide Pod dares, of ill-conceived liaisons that never would have happened without the intimacy afforded by late-night texts.
But I know the rumblings of his discontent will only get louder, and one day I will cave. After all, as I remind myself, the Renaissance eventually ended, too.