At 17, Nick is a good kid. He has many attributes, among which the most important are empathy and patience. He’s good at school, loves his robotics team, and does well around the house. We’ve not yet had to deal with a drug or alcohol incident. I consider we are lucky. When I was 17, only one thing mattered to me, and that was drinking as much as I could whenever I could.
As wonderful as he is, Nick has one very annoying addiction, however, and that’s to his phone. This is not so uncommon. I’ve poked around the web today and many parents lament their children’s preoccupation with their devices.
There are many distractions on the phone, including games and texting. But Nick’s big deal is YouTube. He can’t get enough of it. When he walks in the door at 3 p.m., he’s already been on the phone watching videos since the last school bell.
We can’t go anywhere without it. He steers the shopping cart at the Aldi or the Unfresh with one hand, the other attached to his phone. When he moves around the house, he’s always got his headphones in and his eyes glued to his phone. He comes home from school, goes right to his room, and watches videos until it’s time to turn out the light. I don’t know when he gets his schoolwork accomplished, but his grades are good. So far. Even when he makes his dinner, he does it with one hand.
The phone has irritated me for a while. When he wasn’t working this summer, he was on the phone. Weekends the same as through the week. He didn’t read one book. In fact, I would be surprised if he read anything at all. It made me angry. I harped and cajoled. I pissed and moaned. But nothing aside from turning off his phone number would stop him.
But this weekend, I’d reached the end of my patience. We had a face off over school. Somehow, he got the idea that the Extended Essay for the International Baccalaureate Program was optional. He did some typing this summer, but when he showed me what he’d done it was gobbledygook. He is, at this point, far behind his mates who have taken the program more seriously.
On Friday, he had the day off. By the time I woke up, he was already on the couch looking at his phone. I’m sure that he planned to do that all day, from morning to night.
“I tell you what, Nick, I said, “you have to go get a job now.”
“The deal was that you treat school like a job or you have to go get one. You’re not treating school like a job, so you have to go get one. And, by the way, the phone is mine. You will have to pay for your own.”
Poor kid looked like he’d been smacked across the face with a two-by-four.
I continued after a strategic pause.
“You go in there and work on your Extended Essay, and you do that every day, you can continue with the phone.”
“No, I don’t want to work on my essay.”
“You fail to understand. This is not a matter of what you want. It’s what you have to do.”
“But I’m not doing the Extended Essay.”
“Because you put all this pressure on me to get grades, I have to do that work instead.”
“First, I talk to you about grades about twice a semester. I’m not on you all the time. Second, you have enough time and smarts to do both.”
“It’s either that,” I said, “or I take the phone away.”
The conversation deteriorated from there, but it came down to me taking his phone away. Actually, he’d thrown it in a frustrated fit down the hallway. I picked it up and put it in a safe place.
Then, he brought his hand-held game console out to his place on the couch.
“Well, if I can’t have the phone, I have this. You can’t take this away. I bought it myself.”
I went in and turned the internet off.
“Really?” he said. “Did you actually do that to me?”
“I pay for the phone, which I have now. And I pay for the internet. From now on, it’s only on when I’m using it.” I didn’t want to go to the place where a parent has to say that it doesn’t matter if you bought something yourself. If it causes a problem, I get to say if you can use it.
Now, without phone or game console to access his videos, he was stymied and understood that I meant business. He retreated to his room.
After he cooled down, he worked on his essay. Later, when he came back out into the living room, I approached the subject again.
“Good, you’ve done some work today. I’ll let you have the phone back and the internet, but you have to work on your essay every day and show me your progress. And there’ll be no more of this ‘I have to get grades so I can’t work on my paper.’ You are on the phone eight hours a day. You can find the time to do both. But there’s a catch.”
“You have to show me your progress.”
At first, I suggested he write a page a day. When he demurred, I said, all right, 300 words a day. He made a good point that he still has research to do. The writing will happen a little at a time, but until he’s almost done with his research, he can only make small progress that way.
“All right,” I said. “Here’s what we do. You work on your paper an hour or hour and a half every day—more if you have to. At the end of the day, you will show me what you’ve researched, the notes you’ve taken, and any written work you’ve done on your paper. That’s the deal. There’s no compromising. We’ve done that.
“If I don’t think you’ve done enough,” I continued, “I will take the phone until I think you have caught up. If I have to take the phone more than once, I’m turning off the number and you will have to go buy your own phone and phone subscription.”
He hated it. It was an odious deal. It smelled bad and looked worse. It will make him become a student, which he has yet to do. Getting by on his brains has got him this far. I’m sure he intends to keep doing that, resisting the kinds of changes that constitute real work. But he will continue to get grades and work on his paper, or he will lose his phone privilege (which he is learning is not his right) and he will lose the internet. He will have to go get a job if he wants a phone and he will have to pay for his part of the internet bill.
As I write, he’s working on his paper. That’s good enough for today.