Back in the day, if you were curious about where your tween or teen was, you had to wait until they showed up. Now with a few clicks of the keypad you can stay informed and in touch.
"We have the technology available and I think we need to maximize its use," says Barrington mom Sally Shoemaker. "I’ll keep plodding along with my texting. ... I want to be able to keep in touch with my daughter and it’s a way to speak her language."
A 2008 Samsung survey, conducted by Kelton Research, showed that 68 percent of parents connected with their kids by text message while 56 percent of teens reported they talk more to their parents since they began texting. Even better, 53 percent of teens and 51 percent of parents agree that texting has improved their relationship, the survey found.
"It’s often amusing to teens when their parents learn to text—and the good humor of communicating on their medium goes a long way," says Diane Fisher, a clinical psychologist in Evanston who sees parents and children in her private practice.
How can parents make the most of this technology to stay in touch with their kids and create positive connection?
Keep it upbeat. Decide that you will only text for positive thoughts or simple questions. This is not the vehicle to complain (the kitchen is a wreck), criticize (you never leave gas in the car) or accuse (you were out too late last night). You want them to open your messages. They will likely return the smiles back to you. Shoemaker recalls the text message her daughter sent her recently when she received a good grade on a Spanish vocabulary test. "I helped her prep for the test, and I think she was surprised that she did as well as she did. This was a great tool for her to share her success with me."
Establish guidelines. Deciding a time period for a response to text or e-mail works well for many parents. "Most teens would prefer to have the privacy of answering a text from you versus publicly checking in with their friends around," Fisher says.
"We use ‘parenting by technology’ all the time for keeping in touch with our 16-year-old son," says Joyce Haworth, a Des Plaines mom. "Of course, it’s handy for tracking down each other when we’re meeting some place, but cell phones also allow him to have some freedom while still letting us know where he is. Early on in his ‘roam away from home’ years, we established we had to know where he was, what he was doing, who he was with and how and when he was getting home."
They also have an understanding that if her calls go to voicemail, he has to get back to her as quickly as he can.
Decide who’s paying. Parents might pay for all or some of their child’s cell phone or use a family share plan offered by most providers. In Haworth’s case, her son pays for his phone bill out of his allowance. "Receiving the allowance means that he has to complete certain duties around the house. If he’s unable to pay his phone bill, he loses use of the phone. However, he is still responsible for contacting us concerning his whereabouts. ‘I don’t have my phone’ is not an allowable excuse."
Let them teach you. Switching roles can be good for both of you. "I have also found out that after so many years of me teaching them, the technology is an opportunity for them to teach me," says Ellen Butkus, an Evanston mom.
Simplify exchange of information. Sometimes a quick message is all that’s needed to communicate with your child. "As a working mom, many times I am in meetings or on conference calls. I used to be so frustrated when I could see my daughter trying to call me but couldn’t take the call," says Patty Milazzo, formerly of Skokie. "Now she can text me any time at work—if she is sick, if there is a carpool problem, if she needs to stay for any reason, rehearsal, extra sport practice."
Provide some space. Sometimes, a situation is too fragile to talk about, so e-mail can be a safer way to move toward a solution. Although nothing beats face to face for a heart to heart, e-mails can open up a new level of communication with kids who "talk" best by typing on a keyboard. "I have worked with families where difficult topics can only be discussed outside of session on e-mail," Fisher says. "This can work for a short time to help understand each other without the intensity of a conversation."
Letitia Suk is a writer, speaker and life coach living in Evanston with her husband, Tom. They are the parents of four.