The phone rang at 11:30 p.m. I’m not exactly sure how my daughter, who was nine at the time, snuck out of the cabin, past the supposedly watchful eye of the camp counsellor. Who knew she had the wherewithal to make a collect call. But there she was, standing at a payphone, tearful, homesick, and pleading to be rescued from the horror of arts & crafts, afternoon dips in the lake, and campfire sing-alongs. Between half-suppressed sobs she detailed how everyone at camp was mean, the food was inedible, the bugs were huge, and the bathroom smelled. It was awful, she cried. Every single moment of it was pure, unadulterated torture. If only I would come and pick her up, everything would be okay. And if I didn’t come and pick her up, she cautioned, I would forever be seen as a cruel, callous mother who cared not a whit for her daughter’s emotional well-being. She might never forgive me, she said, and was sure to be scarred for life. So did I pick her up? Nope. Not on your life. Was it easy to hang up the phone and leave my little girl distraught on the other end? Of course not. But after reassuring her that she would survive, and telling her that I believed in her ability to manage the remaining three nights and four days until pick up, I did hang up. (And then I called the camp director to make sure she found her way safely back to her cabin).
So what does my now 23-year-old daughter think about that time at camp? Did she eventually have fun and make lifelong friends? Did the taste of s’mores win her over? Not a chance. She hated it. And with a passion. Overnight camp was just not her thing, and she never went back. But does that mean she thinks I should have picked her up? No. Not at all. Oh, sure – she jokes about how much she wished at the time I’d rescued her. But she also knows that it wouldn’t have served her well in the long run. We both know that.
My daughter, like many others, was a sensitive child. Sometimes brave, sometimes fearful, she was an enigma. Roller coasters were approached with delight, public speaking was no problem, violin solos were performed fearlessly from the age of four, and boarding an airplane was an adventure. At the same time, sleepovers were hard, changes in routine were unsettling, and falling asleep alone was torture. As a mother, I navigated my way through her ups and downs thoughtfully, and most of the time I got it right. But sometimes, I didn’t. And looking back, the times when I didn’t were the times when I took on her worries as my own – the times when I was overtired or overworked or simply caught up in the emotional contagion anxious children unintentionally create. In these moments, I would swoop in and rescue her, forgetting how important it was to let her sit with her discomfort, denying her the chance to push through to the other side, and robbing her of a formative moment that would build her resilience.
During her teens, and with a lot of deliberate work on both our parts from her early years onward, my daughter became more intrepid and more prepared to step outside her comfort zone. In Grade 9, she travelled to Sweden alone to visit a family friend for a week. In Grade 11, she went on a two-week service trip to South Africa. And following graduation from university, she organized a six-week adventure in Southeast Asia with five friends. Would she have done these things had I picked her up from camp all those years ago? I’ll never know. But I do know that teaching her how to take on acts of independence, each of which forced her outside her comfort zone, was intentional on my part and motivated by my desire to prepare her for the future challenges life would surely bring.
As an educator, I often draw on my experiences as a parent. Over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of little ones who remind me of my daughter, and I’ve commiserated with many parents navigating similar challenges. Lately, I’ve noticed how much more complicated it is to parent, compared to when my daughter was younger. It’s harder, I suspect, partly because of the very thing we give children to provide them (or so we believe) with safety, reassurance and comfort. I’m talking about the cell phone.
Let’s go back almost 15 years to my daughter’s camp experience. Children didn’t typically have cell phones back then, at least not at camp. Parents were expected to drop their child off and go home. And children were expected to last a week or two without talking to mom and dad. It encouraged independence, required problems to be solved without parental coaching via text message, and left children alone with their thoughts, their friends and, yes, their worries. Most children coped well, and realized that time away from home was a good thing. They practiced solving problems, handling upsets, and dealing with friendship issues. Those who struggled more than most were supported by caring camp counsellors (who weren’t mom or dad). Without the option of phoning home and calling in the cavalry, kids pushed through and strengthened that important muscle we call resilience.
Today’s children are blessed and cursed by advances in mobile technology. It may be convenient and prevent us from worrying when our child sends a text saying they’ll be late getting home after a party, but the reality is we’re tethering our children to a virtual umbilical cord. With cell phones tucked in back pockets and knapsacks, our children are never truly alone, and can too easily delegate problem solving to mom and dad. Children don’t have to wait to share news of a poor day at the dinner table. (That wait, by the way, gives them time to process and manage their feelings on their own). A thoughtless harsh word from a friend can result in a near immediate series of messages between parent and child that often elevates a small misunderstanding into an emotional drama. (Chances are, they would have forgotten it or worked it out by the end of day if left to their own devices). As an educator, I see evidence of diminishing impulse control and growing behavioural addiction that is impeding emotional growth. In other words, I see how dependence on cell phones is limiting children’s independence and making them less resilient as a result.
I don’t have a ready answer to this growing problem, and know that we can’t put the mobile genie back in the bottle. But as an educator, I think it’s worth having the conversation with our school community. So to all the parents who I know are working hard to shepherd your daughter through life, I offer this bit of advice. Please pause before replying to that plaintive text asking for help. Read it, breathe deeply, and put your phone away. You can talk about it together when you get home. And if you simply must reply, resist the urge to offer up a solution. Instead, tell your daughter you have confidence in her ability to figure it out herself. And remember – she might accuse you of being a cruel, callous parent who cares not a whit for her emotional well-being, but trust me. She’ll thank you for it down the road.