Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Why Parents Shouldn't Force Their Kids to Take Their Calls

New app that forces kids to pick up may be dangerous

The nanny generation of parents who insist on over-controlling their children seem to never give up finding new ways to destroy their kids sense of independence and responsibility. Let’s be clear, a concerned parent is a good thing. But an overly protective one is likely to do more harm than good. Case in point, Sharon Standifird, a Texas mother of two who recently developed an android app called Ignore No More. If a child doesn’t answer her phone when her parent calls, the parent can disconnect service to the phone. The only people the child can still phone are the parent and 911. To unlock the phone, the child needs a password from the parent.

Honestly, the problems with this are so many we’d need a book to begin listing them. Here are just a few that come immediately to mind.

First, let’s point out the most obvious. If your child is worried sick that you are going to close down her cell phone (and text messaging) that child is going to answer your call anywhere, anytime. In fact, a report from the American Psychological Association found that teens are increasing in their rates of cell phone use while driving, and that they are very likely to take calls when they think they are from their parents. But what about if our child is in class? Playing a sport, or maybe, reading a book? Do we really want our children to feel like they have to constantly answer their phones? Worse, do we want them to feel like they are constantly being watched?

Now I know some parents go crazy if they lose touch with their teens. But the solution is certainly not going to be solved by Ignore No More. Good old lessons in responsibility can have a long-term positive impact on the child and the child-parent relationship. Let’s break this down.

Step one: Your adolescent should have some financial responsibility for her phone. Even if part of the child’s allowance is returned to the parent to pay for that phone, make sure your child has ‘skin in the game’.

Step two: Assuming you are paying part of your child’s smart phone bill, then you should reasonably expect your child to make themselves available now and again for a check in. If you feel like you are being purposefully ignored, that is a conversation starter. Explain what you’re worried about and negotiate appropriate boundaries, for both of you. How many calls a day (egads!) or a week (better) are reasonable?

Step three: If the child is still not acting responsibly, then use the power you do have which is to stop paying for the darn phone. Or change the plan to just text. Or get the little ingrate a dinosaur of a phone and see if the situation doesn’t improve quickly. Gotta love those old flip phones that were so cool at the turn of the century.

Step four: If, and when, your child is paying for their smart phone all on their own, well, checkmate. Then you’d better hope you still have a relationship with the child which I’m pretty confident Sharon Standifird won’t. A child who has been treated with respect and coached on how to solve problems is better able to handle the normal stressors of life as they come. That child is also going to treat you, her parent, with respect.

Have we ever considered that the problem is not the child? Now I know kids don’t tend to read columns like this, but before we blame kids for not taking our calls, we need to ask ourselves, are we calling too often? As a university professor, I can tell you that there are too many students taking calls from mom and dad three, four, and five times a day. Is it any wonder that these same children don’t have what it takes to cope on their own? Or why the incidence of anxiety disorders is spiking on campuses across the United States and Canada.

I’ve written extensively about the “risk-takers advantage”. It’s critical we shift our focus as parents from protecting our children from the bad things, to helping them experience manageable amounts of risk and responsibility that will turn them into competent adults. Screwing up, even failure, is a necessary developmental task for children’s mental health. So is refusing a call from a parent. That is part of finding one’s personal boundaries. If our children can’t test those boundaries with us then who will they test them with? If they can’t be left alone to make their own decisions, what’s going to happen when these kids get out on their own? Parties? Blown exams? Maxed out credit cards? Responsibility doesn’t just arrive. It is nurtured. And that means incremental responsibility along the way.

There’s good science to back this up, whether we look at the impact of responsibilities at home, or risk taking behaviours in the community. The end result is the same. A child who is coached on how to look after herself is a child who is going to do much better in life.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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