My Kid’s Cell Phone Use Ruined My Family Vacation

Good values can help kids understand boundaries around technology use.

Originally Published: 
Two kids lying on a sofa, on their phones.
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty

I had a long weekend recently and wanted to take my rare time off and get my family out for some bonding. I work a lot and don’t see my kids as much as I want to because they are usually already getting ready for bed by the time I get home. And in the morning I’m usually out the door before they go off to school. They are in 3rd and 5th grade.

So we went out up to Traverse City for the weekend and we were going to do some fishing and walking around. I was really excited because I was going to teach my son to do some lake fishing, but he wouldn’t get off his phone. Eventually, I got so mad I took it from him until we got back to the hotel and he was miserable all day. Then when we got back to the hotel he begged for it back and was all happy to play his apps or whatever.

I had to go take a walk I was so mad. I never did get to teach him to lake fish and the whole thing feels like a waste. The thing is I don’t want to not hang out with him on the rare times I get free. I want to hang out and talk with him but that damn phone is always around. It’s pissing me off. How can I get my son to stop using the phone so much so we can do father and son stuff? Do I have to just take it away for good?

— Screened Off

Detroit, Michigan


I understand your frustration. I made the mistake of giving my two boys tablets last Christmas. The struggles to control their screen time and their screen desire have been very real. And you and I are not alone in our angst either. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocating kid-friendly media, has found that 69% of parents feel their child is distracted by their device at least once a day. And 28% of parents feel that their child’s use of mobile devices has affected the parent’s relationship with them. Which is to say there are a lot of parents feeling a relationship strain with kids and screens.

So what’s to be done? Unfortunately, chucking your kid’s phone out the window is not the answer. I mean, that’s your prerogative, of course, but the problem is that the phone you fling is just one of maybe hundreds of devices your kid will have in his lifetime. And by the time you relent and let him have another phone, you will have not taught anything about using it responsibly. So the trick is to keep the phone, and change the kid’s behavior around it.

I bet, if you asked him, your son would not understand why you wanted him to put his phone down on vacation. My guess is that he probably felt the decision was completely arbitrary and came from a place of anger and frustration. And although you were definitely feeling those things, your intention for having him be screen-free was about spending time with him because you like him and like spending time with him as his dad. He needs to know that explicitly. He needs to feel that love.

I’m not suggesting that as some touchy-feely solution. I’m suggesting being explicit about your feelings because it will help you build values around the use of electronic devices. See, a kid is more willing to regulate their behavior when they understand that they need to behave differently in order to fall in line with strongly held family values. But those values have got to be specific.

Your family needs to understand, for instance, that spending undistracted quality time together is one of your foundational values. In order for this to be clear, you should sit down and talk to them about why it’s important. It’ll work best if this talk is a real conversation. Ask the kids to offer their thoughts and opinions about the importance of quality time. Maybe help them to think of some incredible times you have had together because of quality time. But don’t talk about phones. That’s not what’s important in this talk. The value of togetherness is.

Once the value of undistracted quality time is established, you can then start building rules, boundaries, and behavioral expectations around that value. Why can’t you use a cell phone now? Because we value being together. That makes sense. It’s not simply mean or arbitrary and comes from a place of love.

But, there’s a wrinkle here too. When you operate on a foundation of strong family values, everyone in the family needs to live based on those values. If quality time is a value, then you need to look at your own behavior too. I understand that as a working father there are some things you can’t change. But I’d venture to guess that there are at least a couple of areas where you might be able to improve based on your value of quality time.

Are there moments during the weekend where you can put away your phone? Maybe times when you might be distracted away from your children when they have requested to spend time with you? When you model the value you’ve built, it’s further reinforced and becomes that much more ingrained in your family’s life.

It’s unlikely that technology will ever release its grip on the family. In fact, there is a serious danger that as our device use becomes more intense and normalized, we will be more alienated from our family members than bound to them. I know that sounds drastic and catastrophizing, but electronics and screens are something we need to control in our families. By building values that require reasonable use, I believe you can do that.

Here’s hoping your next fishing trip is screen-free.

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