Summer Break Parenting Dilemma #1:
Should they be left to their own devices?
It’s a no brainer...right?
by Samantha Woods - June, 2019

Definition of leave someone to his or her own devices:

to allow (someone) to do what he or she wants or is able to do without being controlled or helped by anyone else — often used as to be left to one's own devices.

Merriam Webster

We all need a break from work to rest, rejuvenate and hit the reset button. Likely, I am not saying anything here that you don’t already know. The research is very clear that taking a break to partake in deep rest is a vital component of maintaining our physical and mental health. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Along the same lines, many have strong opinions that our students need an extended break from school...time away from teachers, demanding schedules, homework, tests, the daily navigation of their complex social milieu…again, a no brainer, right?

The research is also very clear about the importance of allowing boredom to foster skills such as creativity, mind wandering, relaxation, self-reflection, emotional development, resourcefulness, and relationship building... just to name a few. Seems like a no-brainer to allow time for boredom over the summer, would you agree?

So, with all of this in mind,  the decision to create boundaries and regulate a teen’s cell phone usage, especially over the summer months, also seems like a no-brainer, don’t you think? Based on the plentiful research currently being shared about the impacts of continual smartphone use on developing brains, it seems to me this should be the case. Reputable research studies conclude that consistent unbounded smartphone use is not a recommended activity for your teen/tween for weeks on end.  However, for some reason, we parents seem to struggle to manage this one and without a doubt, it has definitely become a prickly topic of discussion within homes, classrooms and psychologists’ offices.

Before I get too deep into this, please excuse my harshness on this topic. It is one that gets my heart beating, my palms sweaty and the veins in my neck beginning to throb when I hear well-intentioned adults say, “Well, they are going to do it anyway so why fight it…” or “There’s nothing we can do about it” or “Our parents said the same about rock and roll” or “My child will be mad at me if I set limits on her cellphone use.”


I get it. I have teenagers. I work with teenagers. I work with parents of teenagers. I work with teachers who teach teenagers. On a daily and sometimes hourly basis, I am surrounded by the societal generalization and ongoing complaints by adults who vehemently state, “Kids are addicted to technology. Cell phone use is out of control. My child won’t put her phone down. They sleep with their phone. They are up at 2 am on their phone. They have their phones out constantly in my classroom. We need to abolish all phone use to control them...” I could go on.


However, I challenge this generalization: Are our kids truly addicted OR are they simply unbounded by the adults in their life? What are we doing in our homes and schools to TEACH kids how to manage their impulses and distraction? What boundaries are WE creating and consistently sticking to?


Whenever I’m feeling particularly passionate, opinionated and yes, some of my family and closest friends would say ‘touchy and somewhat irrational’ about a topic, I try my best to dig into the research to get a handle on whether I have grounds for feeling so fervent. In this case, I’m afraid the research added fuel to my fire.


If you’re a glutton for details, my dear friend and teacher colleague Charles Martin compiled and organized a whole load of research on this topic. I am thankful to Charles for sharing this with me and that he is allowing me to share it with you!

Like any sensitive topic, I imagine that we would want to educate our kids about it, place developmentally appropriate boundaries around their activities, provide them with accurate information, while having open, honest and non-judgemental discussions around anything that could potentially create harm. Then, we hope and pray they make good decisions, also fully understanding that they when they don’t, there are consequences.


Like most skills children need to learn, I believe “how to manage technology” is one of them. Explicit teaching and consistent modeling of these skills need to be implemented for students to begin to self-manage. Until they are able to independently self manage, the adults in their world need to teach, guide and set clear boundaries. They can’t just be left to their own devices (literally) to figure it out.


Understandably, smartphones and technology aren’t going anywhere and it’s the reality of learning and life in the 21st century. There isn’t a clear ‘how to’ on this issue and of course, every family marches to their own drum BUT, what we do know is that rigid and uncompromised approaches never really fly with anyone, especially a teen. Cutting them off from their phone entirely could have larger consequences than you realize, including affecting social development and identity. It’s a slippery slope and a tough line to tow.


So, what about summer then? This may be the perfect opportunity to take some time and create some new family routines while establishing some brain-healthy habits.

1. Remember that teens are still children. It’s up to us to create boundaries and create expectations of smartphone use with them. It’s important to involve your teen in this discussion.

2. Be specific about cell phone use hours. As a family agree to set times for smartphone use. Be sure to have a bedtime rule. All family members can decide on a place outside of the bedroom where everyone can put all cell phones to charge overnight. Out of sight, out of mind!

3. Have the whole family take an extended break from technology. Find an extended time when everyone in the family can be ‘offline.’ A few hours? A few days? A few weeks? Gulp.

4. Explain the consequences clearly and concisely when agreements are broken. Check out how this mom set the boundaries and consequences with love and respect.

5. Be Proactive, not Reactive: If your teen shows some interest in a sport, activity or topic of study, sign them up for lessons, workshop, special interest group. We all use our phones less when we are engaged in something that lights our fire.

6. Hangout together...LOTS.  Play games, bake treats, walk together, grocery shop, take transit, join a gym, have a bonfire, camp, shop, BBQ...even when your teen says ‘Nah, I don’t want to.’ You’ll be surprised at the outcome.

7. Get your teen involved in their community. A bounty of positives here!

8. No phones at the dinner table. Note #10.  

9. Be on the same page as your partner. Parents need to work together on this one. A divided approach will have you feeling like you’re paddling upstream and leave your teen confused and uncertain of expectations and boundaries. Remember, if you don't, it undermines both of your authority.

10. Walk the Talk. Regardless of how many of the above techniques you utilize, the lessons won’t resonate if you’re habitually checking your own phone. Teens will be the first to call us out when we are hypocrites. Modeling is such a powerful teacher and takes the least amount of planning.

I encourage you and your family to take the summer to truly take a break from all the ‘school year stuff.’  Nurture family and in-person friendships, be bored, get lost, help out a neighbor and just maybe get into some trouble down at the lake…


Wishing you all a summer filled with some authentic, old-fashioned, in-person “FaceTime.”


We’re all in this together,