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Mom Talk: Navigating Teens And Tech

Written by Teresa LaMendola Kabat-Zinn

Photography by Jeanne Chan, Photographed By Maria Del Rio

We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Teresa LaMendola Kabat-Zinn works through tough conversations with her son about his cell phone use, and discusses how these conversations helped her find deeper meaning and connection in parenting. -JKM

It’s 11 p.m. and I hear my son’s voice traveling down the hallway. When the door opens, I am immediately face-to-face with the girl he’s talking to. “Hi,” I say trying to act natural, while my face immediately flushes. I instinctively cross my arms in a futile attempt to hide my pajama top. It’s FaceTime o’clock in the modern world, but here I stand with my old-school sensibility, naive in my understanding of privacy in this age of constant contact, Snapchat, and Insta-lives. When he hangs up, I feel immediate relief knowing that we are alone. But, before I can say anything, my son’s eyes glance to the text that arrives with a quick buzz on his screen. I remind him of the time, the homework, the college applications. And, all the while, I can still feel the small presence of another world existing in our space together. I say goodnight and welcome his big hug before I leave, closing his door and taking a deep breath, knowing that in the next moment he will be picking up his phone again to check the message.

In the past, I prompted a conversation with my son about his phone with a much different tone than I have in this essay. My voice was stern, my eyes and mind tense. The first couple years that my son had a cell phone, I felt the pull of wanting to say the ultimate “no”—an uncompromising “no” that would offer me the kind of simplicity that only really exists with teens in movies. Rules: that’s all I could think about. What rules can I make to protect him, to keep this tech situation under control? I soon realized that most of my ideas would serve us like a broken umbrella—an illusion of protection floating above us—while the wind and rain come in from all sides. And, though the rules had their time and place in this dialogue, it’s been clear to me as time passes that this conversation needed to change.

Today, I push myself to stay away from the polarity of good and bad. When it comes to my teenager and his technology use, I want to have a deeper conversation about how, why, what, and when. I want to trust and support him, while he cultivates his own internal compass, a map for understanding himself. These conversations aren’t always easy. But, we keep trying. One night, we sit at the kitchen table together; it’s late. We talk about how much time he’s spending on his phone, but it’s complicated. I want him to be on it less, especially at night. He tells me that his homework is on his phone; that he has an Art History group chat he simply can’t turn off. There is always something or someone that he needs to stay in contact with. And, we both seem to be struggling to keep the conversation going. It’s true: I don’t understand what it’s like, but I’m trying to.

Together, as a family, we have now consciously moved away from rules and the polarity of good and bad, and into agreements. We have clear agreements about phones and when they can be out: never at family meals and not when we are all hanging out together. We talk about what he feels when he’s checking his phone all the time. We talk about the power of constant contact and what we might be missing when we are always tuned into the phone. In the end, we are having the uncomfortable conversations. We also talk about phones being a powerful tool for activism, social change, building empathy, educating and bringing communities together, and forming friendship across borders and mindsets.

With these new agreements we’ve entered a new phase, which has its unique challenges and opportunities. Just like many other phases in parenting—phases such as weaning, baby wearing, co-sleeping, getting hurt, going to school, and experiencing a first love and heartbreak—the days of watching, listening, and being there are few and far between. True “parenting” moments often come by a surprise inquiry for advice, opinions during a brief car ride together, or an accidental meeting in the kitchen. Now is a new time for me to step back even further and trust—even when it’s hard, even when I’m not sure everything is going to be okay, and even if sometimes I have to remind myself that this is where we were always going. I want him to grow up.

Today, I see two paths ahead of me: one which involves grasping for the final hours of control, locked in a fantasy world of my “knowing what’s best”, and another where I take an active role in having a dialogue about real issues and support my son as he finds his own way. In our family, I have have seen technology help, harm, and do many things in between. So, I have chosen to view the conversation about tech as an opportunity to teach, learn, grow, and better understand how our children feel when using it. Before my son packs his things and leaves for college, I want to be having the kinds of conversations that lead us to bigger conversations—to deeper places—even if it is more difficult. And, I can feel that just like the phases that came before, we are slowly and carefully building a trust that will become the foundation for whatever is coming next.

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