I love you, now do your homework :)
Sure, texting can be a way for teens to distance themselves from their parents. But it may also open a window to better communication.
If teens want to talk to each other, they text. And text.
A Pew Research Center survey reported earlier this year that text messaging has eclipsed phone calls and e-mail as the primary way that teenagers communicate with one another. Adults, increasingly, are in on it, too, according to a new Pew survey, with 72 percent now sending and receiving texts, compared to just 65 percent last year.
Parenting in the texting age raises a number of vexing questions: Should parents text their teens, whether to nudge them out of bed in the morning or check in on their homework progress in the evening? Can teenagers open up about things more easily via text than in face-to-face conversations? Can anyone over 40 really read those tiny letters without squinting (or reading glasses)?
The answers, in my house anyway, are yes, yes, and not me.
My 17-year-old daughter, Addie, and I text several times a day, on topics ranging from the logistical (Me: “Did you remember to pack your tennis racket?’’ Addie: “Yes, and can we pleeeeaaasssee go to cvs after school? I need makeup!’’) to the profound (“Me: I’m sorry I yelled at you.’’ Addie: “Me too’’).
On the logistical stuff, we’ve got company.
Bethany Allen, 39, a mother of three in Belmont, says she and her teens text each other “constantly,’’ mostly to check in and report on — as she says — stuff like, “Oh, this happened at school, or I got this grade on a test.’’ For Allen, texting is a way to keep in touch, a technology she appreciates. “I just feel like I’m always in the loop. Literally, we text more than we talk,’’ she says. “If anything, it’s brought us closer together.’’
Dr. Laura Prager, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and mother of two teenagers, texts with her kids. It’s a method she adopted when her older child, a son now in college, went through a phase of not answering her phone calls. “But if I texted him,’’ she says, “he answered me right away.’’
For a teenager who’s out and about, at school or sports practice, texting is infinitely preferable to fielding phone calls from mom, especially in front of peers, Prager points out.
“If your mother is texting you and you text back, all it looks like is that somebody is texting you,’’ she says. “If your mother is calling you and you pick up, you have to say, ‘Hi mom.’ He could have a whole conversation with me and he never had to acknowledge that he was talking to his mother.’’
Prager’s 15-year-old daughter, Lucia, agrees. “It’s embarrassing getting a call from your mother when you’re with your friends,’’ she says. “If you talk to her on the phone you have to stop what you’re doing and go in a different room. If you text, you can continue what you’re doing.’’
Brittany Allen, 15, says texting with mom is not so much the embarrassment as the convenience. She and her mother are close, and texting is an easy way to be in touch. But she concedes that some of her friends use text as a way to distance themselves from their parents.
“If my mom calls me, I pick up; but some people are like, ‘Oh it’s my mom, I’ll call her later.’ ’’ Brittany says. “And some people are like, ‘If she’s calling, I’ll text back.’ I think that’s bad.’’
Sometimes, though, that distance is the best thing about texting. At least that’s been true for me and my daughter. Addie and I both tend to be quick-tempered, and we’ve traveled a sometimes bumpy road together as we navigate her adolescence. Texting has provided us a safe way, sometimes the only way, to communicate without escalating into a screaming match. While the vast majority of our text messages convey only trivial information, we have ventured into more emotional territory. In particular, it has become a face-saving place for us to offer apologies and to reconnect after an argument.
I asked Dr. Gene Beresin, a veteran child psychiatrist who directs Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital, what he thought of this kind of texting. As psychiatrists will, he first responded to my question with a question of his own.
“How do you talk to teenagers? It’s not easy to talk to them oftentimes, face to face,’’ Beresin says. “So you talk to them while watching television, or in the car, or in the kitchen putting things away.’’
If Addie’s upstairs, allegedly doing schoolwork, and I want to ask her how it’s going, a quick text is far more likely to convey the message I intend (I love you, now do your homework) than to deliver what she seems to hear when I ask the same question in person (I don’t trust you, I want to control you).
When a parent and teenager find themselves in endless small skirmishes, texting can be a way to avoid conflict over the small stuff. A teen who’s inclined to perceive a parent as yelling over every little thing can more easily tolerate the same communication when it’s over text, Beresin says.
“If you text them, you’re not screaming,’’ he points out. “Text can’t scream.’’
Texting, he says, offers a “kind of optimal distance’’ that allows teenagers in particular “to say something quite lovely sometimes that they wouldn’t say face to face. It can be really positive.’’
On the other hand, Beresin wonders if it’s always a good thing to avoid conflict.
“Parents and teens get the farthest with each other when they have a conflict and end up resolving it. If texting is a way of promoting social isolation from the parent, so that you don’t talk to each other, then it’s bad.’’
Of course, for some parents, texting will never be a part of family communication. Julie Delliquanti, 45, a former Brookline resident recently relocated to Atlanta, says she texts rarely with her 20-year-old daughter, who attends college overseas, and never with her 16-year-old son, Rocky, whose phone doesn’t have text capability.
“Texting, to me, is not conversation,’’ says Delliquanti. “It is a transfer of pertinent facts.’’ It’s useful, she adds, for things like checking in or giving directions, but never a substitute for actually talking to a parent.
When it comes to the serious topics, Bethany Allen says she, too, would rather tackle those face-to-face.
“It’s very difficult sometimes to really tell how someone feels over a text message,’’ she says. Prager agrees. “I don’t use it as a substitute for trying to have substantive conversation,’’ she says. “If I have a gripe with one of them, or if they have something on their mind, sometimes they try to do it with a text and what I usually say is ‘call me.’ ’’
Clearly, texting between parent and teen is a mixed bag that can be both functional and frank. “What’s interesting about texts is they can be highly intimate or highly distancing,’’ Beresin says. “They shouldn’t be an alternative to real human interaction, but if they get the job done without inflaming the kid, then fine.’’
As I see it, part of parenting is figuring out how to keep going when the going gets tough. Even when my teenager can’t stand the sound of my voice, she’ll always answer my texts — and I know that if I speak her language now, we’ll still understand each other when her thumbs get tired.