I never thought I’d say this—especially as a parent in 2021—but I think I need to spend more time on my phone. Weird, I know. Hear me out.
First, a small confession: I’m a casual eavesdropper. Not in a creepy stalker way. Certainly not by choice. It just happens.
My gig as an eavesdropper started in my childhood home. Mom and I banked memories while Dad renovated houses with “good bones” across town.
It was the 80s and we looked the part. Mom in her crisp white shirts and fuchsia lipstick. Me in my turquoise leggings and boxy tees.
Dance class is to blame. By the time I was five, my ears mastered the art of extracting lyrics and faint audio cues buried in song. Our living room was my makeshift studio. Mom was often steps away in the kitchen. Stay-at-home dance parties boiled down to ignoring her hand mixer so I could bop and spin with Whitney Houston.
Inevitably, the phone would holler. The beige plastic brick on the wall was a great big noisy thing. A phone phone. The brrriiiiiing! was impossible to ignore.
Mom would drop everything and dart to the phone, perfume in her wake. My antennae would perk up and I’d eavesdrop until she hung up.
It turns out I picked up her mannerisms and trademark phrases simply by listening to her speak, day in and day out. By the time adolescence rolled in, people started confusing my voice with hers. They said I spoke like her, composed and mature. A little secretary of sorts.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mom’s voice and what it taught me: conversation, kindness, connection. I have no memory of formal teaching moments, only vague visions of listening to her from the living room.
This makes sense, I guess. Observational learning is the way of childhood. Kids are copycats, for better or worse.
And it’s this copycat nature that gets me thinking. It gets me a bit anxious, really.
Do I have a phone? Of course.
Do I use it? Too much.
Do I use it to teach my copycats about, you know, phone stuff? Talking? The stuff my sweet mother taught me? Hello? Is this thing on?
I’ve always had a strained relationship with my phone. I used to loathe its very existence. Now I’m slowly seeing it in a new light. It’s starting to grow on me. You could even say we’re developing a working relationship.
A Brief History Lesson
I was skeptical of smartphones from the start. When the trend took off, I was working as an in-house writer for a bougie apparel company. IPhone mania washed over the design team like a tide that wouldn’t recede. Devices started to undermine creativity and interrupt meetings. A collective mind fog settled over the office.
“Color on the landing page? Let’s do purple. Wait…let me…just…read…. Ummm…hold on. … Christine just emailed about…. Sorry. Never mind. Where were we? Red?”
About a year later, motherhood called. My husband and I moved the gang to Scotland. When it came time for a new phone, I stuck with a flimsy grey thing.
Call it defiance. Call it frugality. Smartphone life still wasn’t for me. The thought of becoming one of my zombie colleagues freaked me out. Plus, I liked the simplicity of owning a purse-sized phone phone.
The Sinking Feeling
Four more years passed before I caved. The camera got me in the end. With a baby on one arm and a toddler on the other, I wanted photos. I needed convenience. Childhood vanishes, I told myself. You can capture it before it’s gone. Just get the damn phone. The grandparents will thank you. They did.
You know what happens next. Another needy child joined the family, only it was a glowing rectangle. Between interruptions and chronic malaise, I felt as if I were watching my life from underwater.
Have you read much on the negative effects of smartphones? The data is bleak. I won’t rattle off statistics, but the situation is clear—something needs to change fast. The dilemma I witnessed at work has snowballed on a global scale: zapped creativity, restlessness, poor sleep, frayed relationships, and more.
One study showed the mere presence of a smartphone diminishes quality conversation between two people. For this reason, I try to hide mine when the kids are around. I want the kids to remember a mother who rolled up her sleeves and participated freely in the day-to-day wonder called childhood.
The smartphone still snatches my attention though, that pesky brat. I leave it on silent but check it chronically. I text like I’m about to get caught shoplifting, my eyes ping-ponging to make sure I’m in the clear. The voices in my head send conflicting messages.
Voice 1: “The Lego!!! Look at the Lego!! He’s showing you how the wiggly bit morphs into that cool other thing! PAY ATTENTION!”
Voice 2: “Just…one…more…Tina…Fey…GIF…and…DONE. Sorry.”
Juggling the logistics of parenthood in this fast-paced digital world is a Herculean task. Days at home are packed from end to end. I try to manage messages and emails and shopping carts and writing assignments and invoices and Instagram visits when the kids aren’t looking, preferably from the silence of my living room, feet up with a cold “mommy drink” at the end of a long day.
Why? I want to be present. Parenting is a weighty and wonderful responsibility. Also, I don’t want to be a shady statistic. It’s a slippery slope. I know my weaknesses. If I’m not tenacious, this scene plays out.
An Undesirable Day in the Life
The kids and I are knocking back board books and feasting on goldfish crackers in the living room when buzz! Concentration dissipates.
Damn! I left my ringer on! I think. Wait—is it Amber?
“Where are you going, Mom?” says the little one.
“Oh, just to the kitchen for a sec, honey. I’ll be right back.”
A quick glance confirms my suspicions. “Coffee tomorrow?” she texts.
Just like that, I’m tapping away in silence. Click! Ding! Click! Ding! Amber gets the green light.
In a split-second—whoosh!—an email lands. It’s a client. A must-read. My tired eyes drag left to right. Scroll, scroll, scroll. I’ll get to it after bedtime, I think. Flag it.
Then I catch my reflection. Ewww! When was my last trim? Swipe, tap, type, scroll…
Eavesdropper Junior pitter-patters down the hall.
“Mom? Where are you?”
I’m six feet away, but I am everywhere and nowhere. My stomach drops.
“Nothing, honey. It’s nothing.” I pitch the phone and berate my lack of self-control. I feel like an addict who can’t kick the habit.
After a recent relapse, I pacified regrets by thinking about my mother. She spent a lot of time on the brick phone in the kitchen.
I stood by while she managed affairs and chatted to friends. Her absence wasn’t neglect; it was necessity. Parenting is a juggling act. Always has been. Always will be. I turned out fine, right? Between booking appointments, answering calls, and, you know, keeping the family together and alive, her hands were full.
Moms talk, I think. So what? We have things to do.
Suddenly, two things dawn on me.
First, I’m not actually talking on the phone. As far as the kids are concerned, it’s talking to me.
Second—the kicker, for sure—how will my hide-the-phone habit impact the kids?
What exactly am I modeling? They will remember me on the phone. Will they remember my voice? Am I teaching them anything about casual conversation from the comfort of home?
If my children studied my feverish emails and daytime texts, fine. They’d absorb the basics: greetings, tact, tone. They’d also pass Emoji 401 with flying colors. The problem? They’re not about to read my inbox.
Realizing this got me thinking: What if parents in the 21st century actually talked on the phone? Imagine that.
What if I reined back texting and email and used my voice more? What would my kids stand to learn? Could I pass down the education Mom gave me?
When I paused to recall the lessons from Mom, my mind flooded with things worth sharing. I quit counting at ten and narrowed it to four. Here are the best of the best.
1. Greetings matter.
When calling strangers—booking appointments or making basic inquiries—Mom would dial carefully and squint her eyes in concentration. When someone answered, her sparkling smile would appear. She’d introduce herself. If the person offered his or her name, she’d use it.
As a kid, I thought this was weird. Now I get it. Greetings can make or break a connection.
Mom was a Dale Carnegie fan. “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language,” writes Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Mom proved it. Calling people by name helped her establish rapport. It set the tone for positive, personal interactions.
As for the smile, that was her attempt at making a solid first impression. “If you smile, they’ll hear it,” she’d say. Again—weird. But once I started working in customer service, I understood. It’s genius.
Smiles are contagious. They cause our brains to release stress-reducing hormones and feel-good neurotransmitters. As someone who paid her dues in a poorly lit customer call center, I can assure you: invisible smiles are audible. If you want good service, wear one. They are like mess-free pixie dust.
2. Minding time matters.
If Mom was reaching out to a friend or client, she always assumed that the person would be pressed for time. She quickly moved to “The reason for my call is X. Do you have a moment?” The 80s equivalent of an effective subject line, I suppose.
It’s impossible to read a room over the phone. This question gives the captive audience a chance to bow out and point you in the right direction, no hard feelings.
I once worked for a man who said we ought to treat each customer as if their time was worth thousands of dollars an hour. “Don’t be a jerk, but get to the point and get on your way,” he’d say. People always appreciate swift and friendly transactions. It’s true in person and it’s true on the phone.
3. Civility matters.
Phone calls can and do go south. Mom’s conversations were not all pleasant. That said, I don’t recall her pointing fingers with her words. I seldom heard her rant. Her tone became firmer but she kept her cool. She didn’t deal in sarcasm. She gave people the benefit of the doubt.
Mom demonstrated that aggression does little to solve problems. Learning to work through minor conflict and basic misunderstandings in real time takes practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen back on simple phrases I picked up from Mom. Things like “With all due respect, that’s not what I said,” and “What I hear you saying is…” and “What are you prepared to do to fix this situation?” When emotions flare and tension rises, it’s helpful to have a few trustworthy statements close at hand.
4. Appreciation matters.
Mom made an effort to offer gratitude before hanging up. “Thanks for your time. I appreciate it,” she’d say. This phrase stuck most. I use it every single day.
There is no such thing as too much gratitude. At the end of a call—or any interaction, really— gratitude is like a superb dessert that’s perfectly plated and delivered right on time. It seals the deal on a great experience or brightens an otherwise so-so occasion. It has the power to redeem what came before. Now that my kids are gaining in years, I can see this habit forming in them. It’s a beautiful thing.
Remembering My Other Audience
These days I’m becoming a talkative phone-wielding mother on a teaching mission, lipstick and all. I want the eavesdroppers under my roof to copy my phrases and learn from me, but the strongest motivation to speak more is this: talking on the phone is an opportunity to embody connection and show kids that every interaction, however big or small, is an opportunity to offer kindness, respect, and gratitude. The people-first ethos Mom passed down has shaped my worldview in radical ways.
I couldn’t bring myself to go 100% analog—videos are too precious!—but my phone is barely making its way through algebra now, if you catch my drift.
I’ve created a simpler device: 80s household brick meets iPhone. My home screen offers two options: talk or text. It’s the only way I can keep hypnosis at bay. Even so, it’s still an everyday struggle.
I deleted 90% of my apps. If it didn’t facilitate audio communication (or prevent me from getting lost on a road trip to God knows where), it got evicted.
The phone stays out of eyesight in the kitchen as much as possible. I go out of my way to make calls and leave voice memos while the kids stand by. The ringer is loud and proud, retro and everything.
The fight against convenience is real. It takes grit and discipline and a lot of caffeine to overcome smartphone habits. I have a long way to go, but the prize is worth it.
Hiding a phone in the name of being present is wise. Doing so fosters connection. The data is clear. Kids deserve more than a supervisor tethered to a device.
The virtue gets blurry when we pass up chances to model speech and basic courtesies to the copycats in our care. We are their primary role models. They’re listening. Communication is not about silent transactions—it’s about connection. It’s about people.
My mother lives on the other side of Canada. We call her Nana. In between nursery rhymes during a Nana Preschool FaceTime visit, I told her I was writing this article. She looked a bit confused. “What do you mean, Liss? What did I teach you?”
“A lot, Mom. Important stuff.”
“I did? Oh. Lovely.” Of course she doesn’t remember. She was too busy talking on the phone.