Your middle-schooler sends you a frantic text saying that she forgot her math homework. She thinks it’s somewhere in her room. She begs you (“PLZ!”) to bring it to school immediately, as she has math next period!
Ugh. What to do?
We all love hearing from our adolescents. And, knowing that they have text-enabled phones alleviates anxiety for everyone. But unless it’s time-sensitive or a real emergency, do we need to return their texts instantly? Perhaps we don’t have to drop everything for their every whim and immediate satisfaction and can occasionally give them the virtual busy signal.
Remember the good old days of corded phones and busy signals? If we needed to reach our parents, we could, but it took some effort and we often had to wait it out. Today, however, technology tethers us to our teenagers 24/7, offering instant gratification to questions big and small. The problem, though, is it arguably holds us back from giving our teenagers the opportunities they need to act autonomously.
So, how can we help build those muscles of resilience and decision-making? And, should we hold back on texting them instantly with our advice?
“It is not only important but necessary,” says psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg, co-author of Teenage as a Second Language. “Children learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes. Texting parents for advice as a default is generally not a self-esteem booster.”
So what is a parent to do when they get a sprinkling—or an avalanche—of texts from their kids every day?
when teens shouldn’t text a parent
For starters, don’t initiate texts during the school day, unless necessary, recommends Greenberg. “Your kids need time away from you both digitally and physically in order to develop a sense of autonomy, healthy separation, and a chance to solve problems on their own.”
Second, if you receive a text, measure the urgency before you respond. If the text isn’t an emergency, give it a little time. Five minutes at first, and a little longer each time.
It’s hard to let go, but phone settings can ease the transition. Turn off “notifications” for a few hours, or use the automated responses many smartphones offer and respond with, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now,” or, “Can I call you later?”
Give teenagers a window to figure out how to handle the situation without your input. See how they do, and use mistakes as teachable moments. As in the days of collect calls when our parents decided whether they were “willing to accept the charges,” we can also be in control of how accessible we are.
What’s the drawback of children texting parents for advice? “This generation risks relying too much on their parents,” says Doris Mann, a former middle school teacher who happens to be my own mother. “The ability to make decisions puts a child on the road to maturity—to becoming a responsible, confident adult. It’s about trusting instincts and having faith in yourself.”
Then she shared a favorite quote from author Denis Waitley: “The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.”