I’m a cell phone holdout and proud of it

“Nancy, face it. You blew it – you shoulda had a cell phone.”

I got it again today. The ol’ a-cell-phone-in-your-pocket-will-save-your-life-and-make-all-your-worries-go-away stuff. You know the drill – if you have a cell phone nothing bad will ever happen and you should never, ever leave your house without it.

cell_phones_and_kidsAnd frankly, I don’t buy it.

When John and Daryl got in an accident in Albuquerque, the response was, “You shoulda had a cell phone.”

When we got separated down in Argentina, the response was, “You shoulda had a cell phone.”

And today, when I screwed up on my calendar and dropped my boys off for a robotics demonstration that is, in fact, next Saturday, and Davy and Daryl had to sit under a tree for five hours waiting for me to come pick them up, the response was, “You shoulda had a cell phone.”

But here’s the deal: no, I shouldn’t. A cell phone wouldn’t have changed a gosh darn thing in any of those situations. OK, in Albuquerque it would have saved me a couple hours of worry when my husband and son didn’t come home when expected. It wouldn’t have prevented the accident; it wouldn’t have brought help any faster; it wouldn’t have changed anything.

In Argentina, there was no cell phone reception (yes, a car did stop and tried his phone).

And today, I’m quite happy I didn’t drop what I was doing to race back out to pick the boys up. If I had done that, they wouldn’t have learned nearly as much – or maybe I should say what they learned would not have been nearly as important.

If we had been carrying cell phones today I would have dropped my sons off just like I did, then I would have driven over to the barn where I had a yard sale going. But just about then I would have gotten a call from them to let me know I had blown it and I would have had two choices:

a)     I could leave all our stuff out on the lawn and drive across town to pick them up
b)     I could stay at the yard sale feeling guilty for making them sit under a tree waiting for me.

If they had cell phones, they would have taken it out of their pocket and placed a call. Period.

But they didn’t have cell phones so they had to rely upon old-fashioned thinking. You know – using your brain, looking at the situation, exploring all options, then deciding upon the best course of action? Yeah – that. Solving your own problems rather than calling Mom and having her solve your problems? Yeah, that too.

cell_phone_wildernessBecause my sons didn’t have a phone in their pocket they had to think. They had to look around at the unexpected situation and think about what they could do to deal with it. They could walk the five miles to the barn, or they could sit under a tree and wait. They chose to wait.

Am I denying my sons a basic human right by not getting them cell phones? No. What I am doing is teaching them to rely upon themselves. I’m teaching them to set up appointments in advance and then actually be there. I’m teaching them to plan ahead and organize and deal with the consequences when a mistake is made. Yes, sometimes that means dealing with the consequences of Mom’s stupidity.

But you know something? That’s life. That’s the way life is. Life doesn’t come with Mom a phone call away to rescue you when you blow it. Life comes with all its ups and downs and twists and turns and each one of those requires us to think to figure them out. Yes, I said think. Not pull an electronic gadget out of your pocket; think.

Lenore Skenazy from Free Range Kids wrote a brilliant article about that.

Cell phones turn adults into babies, constantly needing contact with their spouses, friends and children. In fact, it’s possible that children in a cell-connected world make out worst of all. This morning, not five minutes after I’d left for work, my 11-year-old called from the kitchen to ask if he could have banana bread for breakfast.

Kid — I’m not there. Eat ice cream and marshmallows. Make a vodka smoothie! Go wild or be a good boy, just pretend it’s 1990 and I’m unreachable.

With all of us connected all the time — “Mom, I’m on the bus,” “Mom, I’m two blocks from home” — independence never gets a foothold.

What kind of kids do we want to raise? Do we want kids who know how to look around, explore all options, and figure a way out? Or do we want the only survival skill our kids know is how to pull a phone out of their pocket?

I can tell you with certainty that I want to raise independent young men who know how to think.

Don’t get me wrong – there are great things about phones in general and cell phones in particular, but it’s all about knowing when and where to use it. I learned that lesson early.

My mom was a nurse and left explicit directions that we were to call her at the hospital only in dire emergencies. I took that lesson to heart and made my own decisions. When I woke up sick, I knew to stay home rather than go to school. When I had strep throat, I sat on my bed and sobbed for hours before Mom got home and took me straight down to the ER, scolding me the whole time for not calling her at work.

But I knew what a true emergency was. It was when my 8-year-old self couldn’t get my pigtails put in up high and I called Mom sobbing hysterically into the phone because I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, go to school without my pigtails. Mom ever so patiently convinced me that I could wear low pigtails that day and she would put in high pigtails the next day.

See – even as a third grader I knew a true emergency when I saw it.

That’s what I want my boys to learn. I want them to know how to identify situations they can take care of themselves and which they need help with. I want them to learn to solve their own problems. I want them to look around and size up the situation, explore all the options, then decide on the best course of action. I don’t want them to automatically reach for the phone.

child using cell phoneKids learn to make decisions by making them. I’ve seen plenty of five-year-old kids with cell phones and those kids were encouraged to call Mom or Dad the very second anything happened. They never learned how to deal with anything because they didn’t have to – Mom was only a phone call away and she would solve the problem. And then all of a sudden those kids are 14 and Mom screws up and drops them off on the wrong weekend and they have no clue how to handle themselves.

It starts early – you can’t baby and coddle kids all their lives and then suddenly expect them to be able to handle independence. It happens in baby steps.

I want to raise strong, independent men who know how to think critically. I want them to understand that, at times, the best course of action is to use a phone. I also want them to understand that they are perfectly capable of taking care of nearly every tricky situation on their own.

And honestly, I’ve yet to meet a problem that a phone could solve.

I’m not the only person on the planet that feels this way – here’s another cell phone holdout. She summed up my feelings perfectly.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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32 Responses to I’m a cell phone holdout and proud of it

  1. Wendy May 13, 2012 at 1:13 am #

    You know I’m usually in agreement with you, Nancy, but this time I have to disagree. I don’t think it’s the phone that’s the problem, but the conversation that happens using it. If the expectation is that mom’s gonna solve your problems that dynamic can exist just fine without a cell phone. And equally not exist with one. Maybe they could get a smart phone and use it to keep a calendar so they can keep track of their own activities. 😉

    • Nancy May 13, 2012 at 1:20 am #

      @Wendy, I know I’m the odd man out on this one – and I knew I would get blasted in the comments here! I am just so tired of hearing the whole “you need to have a cell phone or you’ll die!” crap that I hear over and over and over.

      People are stunned that we managed to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina without cell phones, but really – who would we have called? We didn’t know a single soul in Nicaragua or Costa Rica or the vast majority of countries we passed through, so who would we have called anyway?

      Yes, we really did use paper maps and they worked just fine. There was no need for a GPS or having to protect it from rain and charging it and all that jazz.

      All of those things all add up – each tiny decision where someone makes the decision for themself gives them a base for the next one. When something happens and the first thought through your mind is, “where’s my phone?” rather than trying to figure out how to deal with it, then I don’t think that’s a very good base for the next level.

      I agree that the problem isn’t the phone – it’s the people using the phone. However, there are WAY too many people relying on phones rather than themselves. And that is a problem.

  2. Lissie May 13, 2012 at 3:52 am #

    You know you’d love Australia – you can drive (not cycle) for days there without coverage. Bascially you turn your phone off between one coast and the other apart from the odd town. Anywhere you need coverage – you haven’t got it without a satellite phone.

    I totally agree on this – yeah who the heck are you going to call in the middle of Sth America LOL

    And 5 years olds having a phone – that’s insane! The news here is all about cyberbullying – no one has yet suggested the obvious – ban cell phones in the hands of under 16-year olds!

    • Nancy May 13, 2012 at 10:20 am #

      @Lissie, At least in Australia everybody knows there is no reception between towns so people go out there knowing that and prepared for it. Here in the USA, most people assume they will get coverage everywhere so they don’t even think about making other preparations. The attitude is that the cell phone will save them – but really it’s common sense that will save them.

  3. Lois May 13, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    Preach it Nancy! I too am a cell phone holdout, in the interest of full disclosure, I do have a tracphone which has been handy at times, but I’m just as likely to leave it at home (where there is no service) or forget to charge it, and only a handful of people actually have my number.

    Your story about leaving the boys on the wrong day made me giggle, I have a similar story from this past winter. Jonathan was working on a Christmas surprise for the family that necessitated a trip to the library. I was headed out for a few quick errands, so I dropped him off before starting my errands. Shortly after dropping him off I realized that I hadn’t brought my phone, no big thing.

    When I arrived back at the library a couple hours later, I discovered that it was closed! I did some quick thinking and drove to friend’s house about a mile away. Sure enough Jonathan was there, and the jokes began….Even today we jokingly threaten to drop a kid off at the library.

    If I had remembered my phone that day, Jonathan would not have had the experience of figuring out a solution on his own, and a running family joke wouldn’t have been formed.

    • Nancy May 13, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      @Lois, I have a tracphone too – have made exactly three calls in the seven months since I got it! I think kids learn by doing – by figuring out that a friend lives a few blocks away, or that they can hang out under a tree for a few hours. Next time something bigger happens, they’ll have this experience to fall back on and go from there.

  4. DavidMc May 13, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    What’s surprising to a lot of people is that there is actually dramatically less coverage in the wilderness now than there was back in 1998. The analog cell phone technology back then had very low capacity, but pretty insane range and you could get a marginal signal a long long way from a cell tower. With modern higher frequency digital technologies there is much higher capacity, but much less coverage outside the city. (I was able to call for a tow truck in Death Valley in 1998 after my second flat from a spot that had reasonable coverage then and no coverage today. When I go out there now I always throw my bike in the back of the truck, just in case.)

    • Nancy May 13, 2012 at 10:23 am #

      @DavidMc, I didn’t know that! I think one of the greatest dangers we face is the idea that the cell phone will always be there – when, in fact, it might not be.

  5. Tracey - Life Changing Year May 13, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Bahahaha. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve dropped a kid off on the wrong day or in the wrong place. And also of the times I’ve forgotten to pick them up! It’s a running family joke and my kids ALWAYS clarify when I will return these days!! I’ve had cellphones all through this time and they have never once helped!! Lol

  6. Nancy May 13, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    @Rilla, I am so lucky that, so far, my sons are right with me on this one. They can’t figure out why other kids feel the need for a cell phone. I’m hoping they continue to be baffled with them for a while, but if not, I’ll take your approach for sure.

    • Nancy May 13, 2012 at 10:56 am #

      @Rilla, When we were on our first year-long family bike trip my mom got really sick and nearly died. I happened to find out about it right away through email at a public library, but decided I needed a cell phone so my family could contact me if something happened.

      I carried the cell phone for the next 8 months, diligently charging it in campground bathrooms and turning it on when we passed through towns to check for messages. Nothing. 8 months.

      Then one day I just happened to go to the public library to check email again and there was an email from my sister that my mom was dying. She sent email first, then was going to text, but I happened to get online between the two events!

      I ended up getting rid of that phone after carrying it for a year and never using it. Now I’ve got another phone and have used it three times.

  7. Rob May 13, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Cell phones aren’t just phones anymore, that being said my son will not be getting a cell phone until he can pay for it himself.
    I don’t carry my cell phone just for emergencies, sure when get into an accident it is nice to have one but really how many accidents to you get into.
    I read your blog on my phone, I follow you on Facebook with my phone, I take pictures, video, use the maps and get email, use the calendar etc. so yeah I won’t be getting rid of my “phone” any time soon.

    • Nancy May 13, 2012 at 11:46 am #


      ==I don’t carry my cell phone just for emergencies, sure when get into an accident it is nice to have one but really how many accidents to you get into.==

      When I tell people I don’t use a cell phone, the automatic response is, “What would you do in an emergency?” My feeling is that I’ve never run into an emergency that I couldn’t deal with without a cell phone in my 51 years on our planet, so chances are I won’t run into one today.

      As long as we realize that the phone is not essential and we know we’re using it out of convenience and we’re still consciously aware that common sense needs to be a regular part of our diet, then it’s good. The phone is a good tool for certain things, but not so good for others.

  8. T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries May 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    It depends on the person whether it is a necessity or a convenience. For some people it’s their livelihood if it’s a smartphone/iPhone that helps them with their job.

    I actually went 9 months without any type of cell phone from mid-2010 until early 2011…and even now I only have a cheap burner that I picked up for like 15 dollars when I was down in Colombia…I rotate out SIM cards depending on where I’m at, and I only use it for texting or for calling local friends for beers/hangout/whatever.

    I also happen to work from home, on a laptop, so I don’t need a fancy phone because I’m connected to the ‘net on a daily basis via the office. If I were to ever want to work remotely or primarily in social media I would transfer over to a fancy phone or an iPad in an instant…but for now I’m not working remotely, so it’s not necessary.

    I will say this: those 9 months were incredibly tranquil and I actually thought at one point I wouldn’t ever go back to one, but unfortunately you just cannot run a business in the modern era without having connectivity and connect-ability with people on a regular basis…especially if you happen to work in blogging or any form of online media.

    • Nancy May 14, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

      @T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries, I do understand that some people need the phone for work, but I think most people don’t. I am always amazed when people tell me they need the cell phone, but then when I ask them why they can’t tell me. It’s interesting anyway.

  9. Tiffany May 14, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    Hi Nancy, like you, I am working on raising independent thinkers. I was a cell phone hold out for a long time until I got active in politics. I just gave in and got my oldest (she’s 13) a cell phone for Christmas this year. She mostly uses it for games. I made her work for it and continue to make her work to keep it.
    This is my first visit to your blog (found it from your article on problogger), and I can’t wait to dig into it some more.

    • Nancy May 14, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

      @Tiffany, Welcome Tiffany! I’m happy you’re here. I’m lucky that, so far, my sons don’t see the value of a phone and they don’t understand why their classmates bother with it.

  10. Lindsay Hartfiel May 14, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Love this article! Although I do have a cell phone in Costa Rica, I was without one for the last 8 months in the U.S. I personally detest talking on the phone. I think cell phones have made people disconnected from the world rather than more connected. People have become so self-absorbed and rude because of them. One day in the airport I had to overhear one woman’s late-night escapades as she spoke with her friend so loudly that the entire gate of waiting passengers could hear every detail of her conversation.

    Sure, cell phones can be convenient. But you are right…far too often they are used in the wrong situation. People survived without them for hundreds of years; I think we can, too!

    • Nancy May 14, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

      @Lindsay Hartfiel, There are good things about cell phones for sure, but you still need to think and develop independence in your children. It’s all about priorities!

  11. Nancy May 14, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

    @Rachel, I do agree that cell phones can be great tools for the right job. I guess I’m just so tired of people condemning me for my choice to not revolve my life around a cell phone.

  12. Heather May 15, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    We are a family of cell phone users. I mostly like having them but I do see how it has changed us. Now I feel like we expect things to go more smoothly or for us to be more efficient. We should never get lost because we have our gps. No one should be late because they have the time. But life is still messy and chaotic, but my patience with it is less. We should always be “in the know” and hence mistakes, miscommunications, etc can’t be tolerated.

    But I love that I can talk with my pilot spouse when she has a 30 minute layover during the time I’m transporting kids or hanging out at chess lessons. Otherwise we’d go for days (weeks?) without getting to speak.

    • Nancy May 15, 2012 at 11:55 am #

      @Heather, There are good things about the cell phones for sure. Maybe if we are all conscious about the changes that are happening and make a point of hanging on to our own capabilities it will help. Too often, we surrender to the ease of the cell phone and lose awareness. I certainly don’t have the answers.

  13. Susan May 15, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Nancy, I agree with you, love this post! I am amazed at how parents let young kids have their own cell phone (for what purpose I don’t know). I remember when I was growing up in the 80’s and to get your own corded phone in your bedroom was unheard of! My friend got her own phone in her room when she was 15 and it was SUCH a big deal! lol! Anyway, good for you. 🙂 Enjoy your blog…..

    • Nancy May 16, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      @Susan, Thanks Susan! There are definitely good things about the phones, but I can’t – for the life of me – figure out why a little kid would need one. Makes no sense to me at all.

  14. plam May 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    I only got a cell phone fairly recently, about 5 years ago, but I basically only get calls from my spouse. I had a single-vehicle bike incident a few months ago, so the phone’s screen is half-broken, but I haven’t replaced it yet. It still works.

    It is useful to be able to place phone calls and look up information on the Internet while walking down the street (“where is the closest X and what time does it close?”). It has become harder to not have a phone, because there are fewer pay phones out there; calling a taxi now isn’t that easy. However, I don’t really want to receive phone calls most of the time. I certainly don’t think of the phone as being for emergencies, but it does help with failures of planning or last-minute changes. It can also serve as an organizer (instead of a paper day-planner).

    I think it’s very good to not rely on being able to reach parents—it does force children to think for themselves, and really, there aren’t that many bad things that are likely to happen.

    Phones do now seem to be recommended for actual emergencies in the backcountry, although one shouldn’t rely on coverage being available; it’s just another (lightweight) tool that may help.

    • Nancy May 16, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

      @plam, I can see the convenience of it, but it drives me crazy how everybody falls back on the “what about an emergency?” thing when I tell them I don’t carry a phone. I haven’t had an emergency that required a cell phone in my 51 years on this planet, so why should I think I’ll have one tomorrow?

  15. Véronique May 16, 2012 at 6:08 am #

    If everybody has a cell phone around my kids, they obviously don’t need one because in case of emergency, there will be enough people around with phones to help out.

    I have one which is always off. Nobody has my number, not even the school. They must rely on my regular phone and my answering machine.

    • Nancy May 16, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

      @Véronique, That is EXACTLY my thinking! There are so many cell phones around that it won’t be hard to find one in an emergency. I’m like you – I’ve got a phone, but end up turning it on once every month or two. Nobody knows the number because I don’t want people calling it. It works for me!

  16. Landy May 29, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    The best is to have a cheap prepaid phone like a Tracfone. It costs very little and you only pay for what you use. There are times when it is really useful to have a phone, but your general point is valid.

    • Nancy June 5, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      @Landy, Agreed. That’s exactly what we have. We can use it when we need, but don’t rely on it as a security blanket like so many do.

  17. Stéphane Fournelle September 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm #

    I’m 51 and have never owned a cell phone. Never wanted one, never needed one and I get thru my everyday life just fine without one (not even interested in Facebook or any social media for that matter). Why would I be ‘reachable’ at any time, anywhere for anybody ? absurd. Been referred to as somewhat of an ‘extra-terrestrial’ from time to time but I love being the outcast, the stubborn non-conformist holdout. Don’t give in, don’t follow the crowd just to ‘fit in’ … be different, be yourself. 🙂


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