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The iPhone Contract Heard Round the World

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JANELLPOSTCONTRACT
Janell Burley Hoffman

On Christmas morning, we gave our 13-year-old son an iPhone. He dug through the refrigerator-size box to find it buried, wrapped and hidden under endless paper to keep him fooled. When he saw it, he looked at me suspiciously and asked "Is this real?" He smiled wide, his genuine boyhood smile, and we all celebrated with hugs. Before the sun came up, he'd gathered a list of numbers and contacts for everyone he knew. He took a picture of himself on his scooter standing beside the Christmas tree, wearing his new headphones and slippers with a message that read "I got an iPhone! This is my number!" And then he was gone. Lost in hundreds of group texts, endless access to music from our family iCloud, an Instagram account and YouTube videos galore. Late that night, we talked about some boundaries around the new phone once life returned to normal after the holiday.

The next morning, I showed him a contract I had written. It was a collection of my thoughts on technology -- on life, really -- that I had been assembling without intention for years. What is normal? What do we do with all of this access? Where is the balance? I combed for answers in casual conversations and with intelligent experts and decided I needed to find my own truth. Some points were firm rules, some listed my expectations for respect and responsibility, some were reminders to live fully. All of it was created in love. He looked it over, smiled and said "Hey Mom, you're really good at this. I don't think you left anything out." We laughed, he made a small change -- requesting permission to bring it to school for field trips or scheduled after school activities -- and I agreed. He signed. The printed copy sat on my kitchen island for two days before I decided to share it publicly. The response was electric.

We were up to our eyeballs in global interviews, media requests, emails and discussions. We had a blast together, spending all this time and energy showing the world a slice of our full life. His buddies rooted for him, his teachers praised him, his basketball team called him "Hollywood." Weeks into the chaos, he turned to me and said, "I still don't know what the big deal is. Is anyone going to ask us something new? I think I'm all done with this." And like that, we split ways. I carried the broader discussion on parenting, technology and respect into larger platforms. He returned the contract to its original purpose in our home.

His violations have been minor. He begs for a few more minutes to finish a text conversation or FaceTime chat before it gets turned off for the night. His password is ever-changing to prevent his sisters from invading and I'm not always promptly cc'd on the update. He has found his way into age-appropriate he said/she said conversations. I'd worry if I was never met with resistance or a misstep. There is great value and growth there. And we have continued to learn too. I never imagined he'd get 672 texts in one night or that he'd wear headphones so often that I was certain he was ignoring me on purpose or that he'd give his younger brother unlimited access to his phone without question. But overall, as I expected, this boy is thriving with the trust and limits we gave. In fact, more than once, he has reminded me to keep my eyes up, teasing and joking, "Mom's got FOMO," or "Mom, you need a contract?" Our children are always our teachers, keeping us in line too.

A crucial benefit of the contract has been the development of his critical perspective. Often, he shows me in trust a photo that came through his feed or shares a story about a peer who has made a choice or been put in a situation around technology that is risky, unintended or foolish. He sees it clearly -- the consequences, the power, the permanence of our virtual decisions. The dialogue in our home has been busted wide open. He sees that we know the technology, he knows our expectations. And we all agree that the smart phone, the video game, the social networking site can easily become central. This is a living, breathing discussion in our home, far beyond a piece of paper or authoritarian power play.

When I made the contract, I did not anticipate defending it or having it held up as genius. Like my boy said in an interview, "This contract is so my Mom." I was bombarded with criticism -- "Controlling! Bossy! Outdated!" I was overwhelmed with praise -- "Beautiful! Funny! Modern!" And more than ever, I had to be so certain of myself, so confident in my own truth that I stood by it without dependence on acceptance or contempt. I'm tougher than I was three months ago. My head is clearer. My voice, more certain. I was unexpectedly asked to stand up for my family, to model a belief system of integrity and authenticity to a global audience.

Late at night when the contract first exploded, I'd lay wide awake, buzzing with media overload. Why did this matter so much? What was this intense build of energy underneath the contract? As days turned to weeks and weeks to months, I saw it. Active parenting is vital, being engaged with our families, crucial. Teaching self-respect, consideration to one another and nurturing real human connection in our homes and communities is paramount. Then deeper still, trusting ourselves to know what is best for our own families -- even if it doesn't look the same -- is empowering.

For me, the contract craze became a rally call for all parents to believe in themselves, to seek answers, to crawl out from under the pressure of perfection, to embody their humanness, to risk being a fool by taking action, to fully participate in the name of raising whole people. It became a message and a movement in my heart. Born from love for our children, we find the courage to hold each other up as we navigate what is new, what is unknown, what is real. It is our obligation as parents to rise to the challenge as we blaze this new trail of technology with our families.

Recently, I left a note on my boy's bed praising his responsibility and character. And just as I exhaled, proud and exhausted in the way only parenting can make you feel, I got a text message. It read "Hey Mom, so can I get Twitter now?"

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