bruun sons

Is The Phone for My Kids’ Safety…Or My Own Anxiety?

Honest and searching. That’s how I’d describe this essay by Sybille Bruun,  PhD. Sybille conducts research in cognitive science in education at Teachers College (Columbia University) and has had over a decade of experience in New York City’s public and private schools. She’s also the  mom of the twin boys above, age 10 — the ones pictured! 

Get Lost, by Sybille Bruun

I was lost. Not in-danger-of-being-eaten-by-a-grizzly-national-parks lost. Just New Jersey lost.

The fine Garden State has a lot of roads and, as it turns out, many of them look the same. Concrete pavement and horizon this way, that way. I pondered this fact as I stood, sweating, on the side of the road a few months ago, trying to discern which direction to drive. My GPS had been thwarted by the hills surrounding me, and I had a job interview to get to – my first one in eight years (so I really didn’t want to be late).

After a few moments, I saw a jogger approaching me. Thankfully, he was familiar with the area and pointed me in the right direction. Still, the whole experience was uncomfortable. It was an experience that I wouldn’t wish on my children – the uncertainty, the sweat soaking through my suit jacket, the clock ticking down to a deadline I didn’t know if I would make. Being lost is hard.

Kids used to get lost a LOT.

For most of American history, children have roamed. They roamed the streets or the fields, exploring nooks and crannies known only to them. It’s hardly news that this roaming has been in decline for decades. As kids’ free time has been curtailed by tightly packed schedules, and as what free time remains has been given over to indoor screen activities, both the desire and the ability to explore the physical world has dwindled. And while there is no doubt that the appeal of tech has impacted children, lately I’ve been considering that…maybe I’m the problem.

Not me personally, me and all those like me. Parents and caregivers who, for perfectly good reasons, are hoping to help their children avoid scenarios like the one described above — with far-reaching consequences that we haven’t considered.

Now we’re told, “A child should never be alone.”

We’ve convinced ourselves that gadgets like phones are bad for our children, but also that children need them in order to function in today’s world. It’s as if my sons, without a phone, would be untraceable if kidnapped on the side of the road in New Jersey. (Not to mention friendless, social pariahs.) In a well-meaning statement on how to prevent child abduction, my own state’s government website warns us: “Know where your children are at all times” and further: “A child should never wait alone at a bus stop, especially if the stop cannot be seen from your home.” (I live in Manhattan — I barely have windows, much less any with a view of a bus stop!)

Meanwhile, though a thorough review of the smartphone literature is beyond the scope of this article, there can be no doubt that parents have more research than ever when it comes to making decisions about when, and if, to give their children smartphones. When I speak to others in my parent groups, the refrain is always the same. “Yes, the phones are terrible and addictive but, you know, we need them.”

Yes, it’s comforting to know where our kids are.

Well, we adults might think we – and they — need them. I crave the comfort of knowing where my children are because I can’t imagine living with the guilt if something happened and I hadn’t provided them with every tool available to be kept safe. My anxiety levels are lowered when I can track and account for my boys’ every move. So I desire the certainty, the tracking app, the immediate gratification of a text: “I’m okay. I arrived safely.”

The challenge is that I believe my need for comfort is what’s driving my desire to give my children a phone. I am raising kids in a major U.S. city, chock-full of volatile people and unpredictable situations. My kids have after school activities, and they’re getting close to an age at which many of their peers will be outfitted with a phone to navigate the city, to call home if they need something, and to connect with friends. But are these uses actually helping my kids the way I might intend?

But maybe our comfort is not the point.

What happens in the void of New Jersey? The skills needed to navigate that situation and discomfort cannot be instilled by app. And if I’m concerned about my kids’ ability to handle an unpredictable event, I may be better off making sure they have my phone number and their address memorized.

My concern is not solely that my children might not develop appropriate navigational skills. It’s that the phone allows me to please my children and preempt every possible challenge they might face (like being lost) – and that may actually be impeding their ability to develop those skills. I grew up in several European capitals and the best we could do was payphones operated by coins (if you happened to have any). In an emergency, that was it. I spent countless summers traveling across the U.S., calling home to Europe only from random payphones on Sundays. Did my parents have nerves of steel? They must have. But if they did, they taught me that I was made of the same metal. I didn’t doubt my ability to handle tricky situations.

Maybe we all have to be a little less comfortable.

By handing my kids a phone, even if we (as the popular movement suggests) wait until 8th grade, am I not hampering a natural opportunity and, perhaps, even the inclination for my children to learn to look up and around instead of down and in? In this age of ever-increasing anxiety amongst teens and children, handing them a phone to ease uncertainty may even prove counterproductive. According to Yale psychologist Eli Lebowitz, while “accommodating” a child’s anxiety provides a short-term reduction in distress (for instance, an iPhone allowing the child to reach a parent when faced with an unfamiliar situation), continued dependence on the parent for this accommodation can lead to continued anxiety.

In a real-world scenario, this looks like children unable to develop a comfort with discomfort and uncertainty in daily situations, because they aren’t required to do so. Researchers have observed that intolerance of uncertainty distinguishes clinically anxious from nonanxious children. In fact, some research has shown that an improved tolerance of uncertainty is a predictor of worry reduction.

Discomfort in the short run pays off in the long run.

Surely, we want our children to worry less, but our behaviors as parents are demonstrating that we are, more than ever, involving ourselves in every aspect of their lives to ensure that they run smoothly. Teachers report that in the bathrooms at schools, upset children call home when they receive the results of a quiz or test. And then there’s this conversation I overheard only last week in a classroom: “Mom. I left my jersey at home and the coach won’t let me play — can you bring it?”

Am I the mom who might heed that call and ensure my son’s playing time? Absolutely. But if I can be the knight in shining armor who saves my son from soccer purgatory, will he learn to bring his gear? Or was the lesson re-enforced that I am there to solve their problems?

I know there will be parents reading this and do not relate. Who already allow their kids to struggle, to empower them.

As a cognitive scientist — and a mom — here’s what I think kids need:

I am a woman of almost 50, a life-time educator and cognitive scientist, and this lesson is only really dawning on me now. And I hate that I am having to learn it because it means that I, myself, now have to be uncomfortable.

I have to take a long hard look at the life I am providing for my kids and acknowledge that by accommodating them, I am really accommodating myself. I am giving them tools that, at least in this way, are impeding their development.

I need to teach them better that they are capable. To do that, I need to let them get lost. – S.B.


If you’d like to get your kids out and about more — or even lost — Let Grow has some materials to help. And they’re all free! Take the Pledge of Independence and Let Grow (the nonprofit that grew out of Free-Range Kids) will send you their 10 Weeks to a Let Grow Kid emails, featuring one activity a week. Or introduce your school to the independence-building Let Grow Experience and get a whole LOT of kids out and about. Fast!

One Response to Is The Phone for My Kids’ Safety…Or My Own Anxiety?

  1. George Parker July 2, 2024 at 5:51 pm #

    “children unable to develop a comfort with discomfort and uncertainty in daily situations, because they aren’t required to do so”

    I totally agree. Coping with unfamiliar or confusing situations is a skill that needs to be taught by placing children (even toddlers) in safe situations where they need to figure out what to do. The Let Grow Kid emails are a good example. Otherwise “Don’t know what to do! Phone home” will be the default response.

    In terms of getting lost: It helps if kids are consciously taught how to navigate by remembering how they got to where they are. A toddler taken a block or two from home can be asked to lead you back home. An older child can be asked to remember where your car is in a parking lot using landmarks like a store sign and another fixed object as reference points or asked to describe how to get from home to a certain place. And of course these activities should always be treated like a game.

    Getting lost or being in a confusing situation is a frequent part of life even for adults, and Free Range parents are giving their kids an advantage by giving them an opportunity to figure out a solution themself and to recognize when they really need an adult to intervene.