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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Why we just say no (to technology)

Uploaded: Oct 13, 2013
When we meet folks from other places and they hear we live in Silicon Valley, they assume we are early adopters and our lives revolve around technology. In fact, we try to keep our home as technology free as possible.

With our older children, who were born in the 90s, our approach to technology was simple, " just say no". We said no to TV, computer games, and movies. Our kids entertained themselves better and fought less when TV was not an option. When the kids were little, avoiding it was far easier than monitoring it.

At the kids got older, we continued to place restrictions on technology use. When they reached middle school, they were permitted a cell phone that was to be used only to call us. Email access came in high school with the caveat that I would monitor it. We finally relented on Facebook, only because that was how their church youth group organized ballroom dance gatherings.

Despite this draconian approach, both of our older kids seem to have a relationship to technology typical of young adults, they are completely reliant upon it. Last month, the most difficult adjustment for my daughter during her semester abroad in Paris was not speaking French, navigating the metro, or getting along with her host family, but it was the lack of Internet access in her bedroom (and no closet). "Of course I want an immersion experience," she sobbed, "but not if it means wrinkled dresses and no Skype!"

Unfortunately, abstaining from technology has not been an option while raising our younger new millennium kids. Completing homework now requires the computer, texting has replaced phone calls, and I am old and tired.

As our older children regularly remind us, we parent their younger siblings very differently than we did them. The younger children watch movies on weekend evenings and on car trips (as well as eat more sugar and practice piano less). We still do not have TV channels, but since everything is now available by computer, our elementary and middle school students are required to use my computer in the kitchen for homework. Even with that precaution, one of our elementary students figured out how to use the homework google docs account from school as an unmonitored, unauthorized email system. I had no idea that was even possible.

Due to our being less tech savvy than our children, there have been additional missteps. We continued to wait until middle school to grant cell phone privileges, but did not foresee the lure of texting. We first learned that our middle schooler was "going out" with a girl when his cell phone stopped working. He had racked up $450 in texting fees by sending her 1,552 texts in two weeks. Since that episode, all middle schoolers' phones are left to charge on my desk, with my having the option of periodically scanning the contents. We also changed our texting plan.

While in high school, one of our younger kids posted a mildly offensive comment on Facebook. Prior to letting him have a Facebook page, we had not confirmed that he really understood that all 400+ of his "friends" (including his grandmother in the Middle East) would see the comment, not just the few close friends he thought would find the immature humor funny. Our high schooler also has snap chat, despite the fact that it seems to offer infinite possibilities for bad choices.

These lapses in oversight did give us the opportunity to discuss the most important thing we think kids need to know about technology. The Internet is a "permanent record" of everything you write or read, and every picture anyone posts of you. This "permanent record" exists forever, and can be seen by everyone in the world you know, and everyone else, too.

We live in an area with an infinite number of enriching and fun activities, and we enjoy gorgeous weather year round. We try to find other ways to entertain ourselves and reserve technology for work, study and social scheduling. Some days we have more success at this than others. We have a "no cell phone" policy at dinner, but actually it is my husband and I who are the worst offenders, especially if he is in the middle of a really exciting iphone chess game or I desperately need to check Wikipedia to win an argument.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by CherylBac, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 13, 2013 at 11:31 pm

CherylBac is a registered user.

Great read! Even with a toddler, it amazes me how many technological decisions I've already made. Should we use a baby monitor in the nursery? Skype with relatives? Watch any TV or use the computer with my son in the room? Buy toys with batteries and flashing lights? Interesting to hear about the challenges ahead. Thanks so sharing your experiences.

Posted by Renate Steiner, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 1:12 am

Sally, Your insights are always spot on and inspire me to be a better parent. Keep your pearls of wisdom coming -- please!

Posted by Dave Rader, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 6:19 am

Sally, this is a really good story on the progression of technology into our lives. We also set up a central charging station where the technology should be left overnight. Two additional suggestions: we download the billing detail for the mobile phones and summarize by time of day and day of week. They cannot control what their friends send, but there should be no "sent" messages after the agreed time for end of day (may be up longer for reading or last homework). And, we review news articles about famous people getting in trouble with electronic communications. If the head of the CIA cannot keep his communications private, what makes us think we can?

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 6:50 am

From a parenting perspective, I find it challenging to make decisions about emerging forms of social media. I feel like I only understand the problems with technology like snapchat after I've heard about something that has gone wrong for my own children or their friends.

Posted by MemberMomOfThree, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 7:27 am

I agree that parental monitoring is critical. For each new application that I learn about, there are two new ones that I am not yet aware of. We require the phone to be put away at 9 pm and charged downstairs. The central charging location idea is a good one. There is a real issue here which is changing the way our kids think and look at life.

Posted by Jordan Parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 8:02 am

Thanks Sally for a very real account of the types of struggles for parents and kids with technology's challenges. I liked hearing your well-principled intentions and priorities, and then also how the human side enters in(old and tired -- laughed out loud -- it's so true for so many of us!). Best wishes for your continued work in guiding and supporting parents on this journey.

Posted by TulsaNative, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 8:31 am

So great to hear from someone else navigating these waters. Sally's voice is a superb addition to the local blogs!

Posted by Mom of Three, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 8:49 am

Great read Sally! Technology, and containing it, is the greatest challenge in our household. I so value hearing your perspective and your experiences! So comforting to know that even with your principled intentions, there have been hurdles and bumps in the parenting road. I benefit so much from your wisdom! Keep the advice coming sister!

Posted by Edita , a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 9:02 am


Spot on! I remember getting the rid of the TV. It shattered and the pieces morphed into countless smart phones, tablets and laptops.

Posted by Francie, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 9:55 am

Love the advice and that you shared moments when things didn't go according to plan, or being blindsided by technology that somehow our kids learn in spite of however vigilant we are. The best advice I ever got was to consider computers (and now social media) as a swimming pool in the backyard. It is fun but also very dangerous. Teaching our kids to swim is essential, whether in a pool, on a computer, or on an app on a device that hasn't even been invented yet.

Posted by Shikha, a resident of Atherton,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 10:41 am

Thanks Sally for sharing your family stories regarding media. This is the one area that I struggle with the most. A website I go to all the time is CommonSenseMedia. My soon to be 13 year old will definitely be participating on their online curriculum before she gets her first social media app.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 10:53 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Cheryl- You are facing a lot of technology choices we did not even need to consider when we had a toddler, such a different conversation than we were having at park dates.

Thanks for the encouragement, Renate!

Dave, thanks for the great tip about downloading the billing details of the cell phones. I'm going to get my kids to help me do that. I have a feeling that when they even see it is possible, it will be a great incentive to abide by the agreed upon cell phone curfews. I will also look for news items about the lack of privacy online to discuss with them, albeit focusing on the G rated ones!

Karen, I agree, it is disconcerting to feel one step behind. I wish this technology came with a list of warnings of side effects and possible complications.

Dear MemberMomOfThree, Yes, what is this technology doing to kids' abilities to navigate the real world?

Dear Jordan Parent, Thanks for the support! It helps me to know others are facing the same issues.

Thank you, TulsaNative!

Thanks Mom of Three, we are definitely not alone in this, plenty of hurdles and bumps to go around.

Hi Edita, TV does seem so innocuous now.

Hi Francie, I like the swimming pool analogy! It is a lot like a pool, mabye with water slides, diving boards, rip tides and a few sharks. There is so much to be aware of.

Posted by Technology-Is-Just-A-Tool, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 11:30 am

This posting seems to be more of a rant against personal electronics than technology as a whole. Our society has long ago crossed the threshold of depending on technology, going way back into the 1700s, and even earlier if you include sailing ships and bronze/iron/steel making.

> Due to our being less tech savvy than our children,
> there have been additional missteps

And why would that be? Why wouldn?t a parent at least learn the landscape of the technology their kids are using. For the most part, it?s just pushing a few buttons, to see what happens.

> We have a "no cell phone" policy at dinner

That?s a great idea. But it seems like a no-brainer. By the way, what do you do when the landline rings? Do you let it go to voicemail, or answer it?

For those of us to grew up pre-PC/Internet, getting access to information, music and video-based entertainment was constricted to newspapers, books, TV, Radio and movie theaters. Now, we have been freed from these channels, and can get access to Newspapers, Video and Radio around the world, at any time of day. We are not constrained to local paper, or TV, or the Radio channels. We can also make on-line friends, sharing thoughts, pictures and video snippets of our lives, from all over the world. This is the benefit of technology.

Everything needs to be managed. In the home?that?s the role of the parents, whether they like it or not. Maybe parenting is somewhat harder now than it was a few decades ago?but it?s not impossible. Parents are in charge, and kids are there to learn, and follow the rules. It?s not that hard, if you have the backbone to be a parent.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Great blend of ideas and humor, Sally!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Shikha, for the CommonSenseMedia recommendation. That site has been our go to place for movie selection, we will definitely check out the online curriculum for social media.

Thanks Technology-Is-Just-A-Tool, for your comments. Yes, the benefits of technology are infinite, and managed wisely our lives are better for it. Yes, the landline goes to voice mail during dinner. It is probably a solicitor anyway, anyone else would text. And yes, I couldn't agree more, parenting has always taken a lot of backbone.

LJ, thanks for seeing the humor.

Posted by SCO, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm

great points! i really think it is a hard balancing act in this day where technology is everywhere and is available 24 x 7. bravo on trying to stick to your values!!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 5:06 pm

It is definitely a balancing act, both for us and the kids.
Thanks for your comment!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 6:40 pm

As the parent of high school and beyond, this makes me smile as I tried to do this back in elementary and preschool days. What I found to my dismay is that in school they were getting further ahead than I was and in fact I was holding them back by not getting them involved. From doing research for science projects, allowing them to type their book reports and allowing them to email teachers, I discovered that by the time they entered middle school they were at a distinct disadvantage as this is what the teachers were expecting. 6th grade wake up call involved me teaching them to type and typing to their dictation, discovering that they were expected to use tools such as Schoology and InClass (now defunct) made me realize that technology is something that has to be embraced whether we like it or not.

I doubt very much that even kindergarten parents are really able to stop the expectations of technology for kids. From learning to read with the aid of tablets (not actually turning a page) to SmartBoards instead of whiteboards, the classroom is awash with technology and the kids who can't use it will feel left out before they have even started 1st grade.

Posted by Kirsten, a resident of Community Center,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 8:17 am

Thanks for your perspective and parenting and the change of technology. We have a written contract with our son regarding when and where technology can be used, but it is a never ending battle making sure the electronic devices stay "asleep" after 9:00pm. I wonder if there is a way to monitor less without kidnapping the devises? Your idea os leaving them on mom's desk sounds like something we could try!

Posted by Old School, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 10:04 am

I can't stand it when my kids have to use the computer for their school work. There's nothing good that can come of it. The things I want my kids to be able to do academically can not be taught well on a computer. It's just a grand distraction. If PAUSD introduces tablets for all kids like the Los Angeles schools tried to do, we would almost certainly switch to private schools. I think the only kids who might be well served by computer based learning are those on the very bottom of the scale -- like the bottom 10%.

Posted by ds, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 11:07 am

I very much enjoy your perspective on parenting. Laughing out loud ...

Posted by Peggy, a resident of University South,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm

You crack me up! Thank you for this delightful blog!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 11:25 am

Thanks Sally! I keep nodding yes! I'm quite technology-savvy, but apps come out faster than weeds! I'm trying to think ahead to the rules as they get more savvy. Email currently flows into my email, phones can be scanned at any time (I own them!), computer work is in the family areas and movies/TV are only weekends or if it's a treat (and homework is done).

I'm glad that the schools are encouraging technology use (and the impact of your digital tatoo) because I see it constantly at work. However, it must be used wisely - blogging for blogging's sake is not how you learn to write.

I think that a dialog like yours helps us, as parents, learn what's out there. Our middle school parent network is trying to share the newest apps that we are discovering so that we are all more up to date!

Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I think if you embrace technology head on, with your kids, you have better chance of understanding it yourself, and imparting some wisdom about using it on your kids.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Parent,
Yes, there is certainly the expectation even in elementary school that kids have some level of confidence using the computers. Last time I peeked into the kindergarten, however, I was happy to see the kinders engaged with scissors, fan folding and glitter paint.
Hi Kirsten,
Yes, those devices are just so compelling!
Hi Old School,
I also wonder whether the analytical and reading skills are best taught by computer of more traditional instruction, discussion and pencil and paper.
Hi ds and Peggy,
Glad to share a laugh with you!
Hi Karen- Thanks for all the great tips on monitoring. Sharing info on the newest apps is a great use of the parent network.
Mr. Recyle- Absolutely spot on! There is nothing more crucial than open communication and partnering with our kids on this.

Posted by Elizabeth, a resident of another community,
on Oct 17, 2013 at 10:55 am

What a nice article! So much cyberbullying goes on over the internet, this common sense approach helps eliminate this. Embracing technology unfortunately means subjecting kids to all the mean-spirited activity on the internet, ads and news items that pop-up out of nowhere that are definitely adult material, and all sorts of bad behavior that they then imitate because they think its normal (taking some Kardashian-like picture of themselves and post it on Twitter)

Also, I think it really is sad that a lot of kids who say they are 'connected' sit around at home waiting for someone to "Like" their comments they put on some internet site.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 17, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. There is a lot of less than desirable content on the internet and monitoring is key. Perhaps that is one benefit of "over scheduling" kids a bit, at least they are out interacting with others and not in front of a screen.

Posted by bobgnote, a resident of Mountain View,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Of course, as my TV now reveals, even the Amish have mafia.

I think I'd rather know media and how to edit this, than end up, as an ignoramous, subject to media manipulation, to which I'd otherwise be too familiar, to succumb.

Of course, since I have HBO, and mommy and daddy have passed on, I can watch BOARDWALK EMPIRE, to realize the 2020s are right around the corner, and ignoramouses and worse are going to make sure that decade will roar, in some nasty, distorted, but predictable way.

Who will not observe will not learn, and who will not learn, will repeat errors, including those noted, by historians.

At least the NSA doesn't have too much of your signature, on their monitors.

When they get that, they traffic your intellectual property, to corporations, and gits in the White House entertain the corporate vampires, which benefitted, from your talent.

So keeping your kids in a bag isn't simply on the road, to Pennsylvania and horse-and-bugy vanity, revisited. But if I don't have GAME OF THRONES, TRUE BLOOD, NFL, NBA, and a bit of news to surf, I don't know why I'd know, to usually and totally ignore most people, who think simply turning off the TV and restricting internet somehow makes kids turn out better.

Posted by Debbie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 9:51 pm

It is definitely a challenge to teach our kids to use communication devices appropriately! I enjoyed the humor in your reflections on this process.

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