By Rabbi Yitzie Ross

Question: 

I’ve been reading your e-mails for quite some time now. I’ve noticed that most questions are regarding younger children. Although I have a few young kids, my question is concerning my 11th-grader. He goes to yeshiva very early in the morning and comes back late at night. When he arrives home, he immerses himself in his phone and the computer, which are filtered. All he does is play fantasy ball (still don’t know what that means). I know he needs downtime, but I want him to be a real person and not live in fantasy land. My husband is a rav, and he feels my son should be spending more time learning at home. We were wondering if you would answer a question about teenagers, and if so what your thoughts are.

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Answer:

First and foremost, you are not alone. I recently spoke to a chassidishe father who lives in Williamsburg, and he has the same problem. He told me that he would never admit it publicly, since his kids are not supposed to have smartphones or internet access. However, in his words, “I fear that my teenagers are relying on electronic devices for companionship.”

Let’s start off by empathizing with your son. He spends over 12 hours in yeshiva and he needs some downtime. These days, children associate electronics with relaxation, and it makes sense. Many adults “chill out” by watching a video, playing a word game, or even reading an e-book. It’s only natural that children feel the same way. There’s no denying that he needs some time to relax, and this will help him unwind.

This leaves us with two important questions.

(1) Is it bad for your son to be on his phone all night?

(2) Is there anything you can, and perhaps should, do about it?

To answer the first question, I’m sure it’s not the best outlet, but it’s certainly not the worst either (as long as the phone is filtered). I’m wondering what you expect your son to do when he gets home. Do you want him to sit with you and talk about his day? And if he did, how long would this conversation take? In other words, you need to have a plan of action before broaching the topic. I’m assuming he doesn’t have a bedtime, so what do you want him to do with the rest of his time? Yes, there’s reading and listening to music, but just like many adults use their phones for unwinding, teenagers would like to as well.

Regarding what your husband wants, let’s skip that issue since there are so many variables involved. Instead, I will focus on what your expectations are. You aren’t happy with what he’s doing, but do you have any other suggestions?

That brings us to the second question. What can you do about it? Here are my thoughts. As I’ve written many times, not all of these suggestions will work. You need to know what’s appropriate for your situation and your child.

  • Do be honest with him. He’s not a 6-year-old you can use reverse psychology on. Tell him that you’re not thrilled with the constant need for electronics as a method of relaxation.
  • Do empathize with him. “I understand you need some time to yourself after a long day of yeshiva.”
  • Do limit his electronics time every day. For example, he can use his phone or computer for an hour a day. It could be one hour straight or two 30-minute blocks. Once his hour is up, he can’t even send texts or use WhatsApp. The device must be put in a public place and left alone.
  • Do limit the amount of time you and your husband are on your phones. It seems hypocritical to children that parents say to stay off devices, and then they run when it vibrates. It’s hard for them to comprehend why your text is more important than theirs.
  • Do insist that when your children are at the dinner table, or even having a snack, they cannot have their phones. This is always a great time to talk. If your son is in the mood for a snack at 9 at night, so be it. Let him talk with you about his day.
  • Don’t make it about you. Comments like, “I would like to spend time with my son,” seem selfish and are unnecessary. It’s not about you.
  • Don’t make threats that you won’t follow through on. “I will take away all your devices” might make you feel better, but you probably won’t do that.
  • Don’t text your kids if you can talk face-to-face. Texting “Dinner is ready” might seem cute, but it validates that texting is an appropriate form of communication for family.
  • Don’t tell your son that you know many families where they’re not allowed to use devices during the week, since he can spin it around and tell you that many boys have it with them all the time. Keep the conversation only about your family and your rules.

If your son begins telling you he’s bored, you need to take a firm stance. The “I’m bored” line is appropriate for younger kids. You can tell your son that if he uses that line, it shows a serious lack of maturity and it might be time to reevaluate certain freedoms he’s been receiving. He can get a job, do school work, read, or practice an instrument. You shouldn’t need to prepare activities for a 17-year-old boy.

Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly e‑mails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.

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