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Hold the Phone

Something as simple as the landline phone kept the members of a family connected to each other


WE read in last week’s Pirkei Avos (3:1) how, after our time in this world, we’re destined to give a din v’cheshbon before HaKadosh Baruch Hu. But what exactly is this accounting referring to? The Vilna Gaon explained the Mishnah’s statement this way: Din refers to the things we did in life, while cheshbon involves the missed opportunities, the things we could and ought to have been doing during the time we were busy doing what we shouldn’t have been. In our future accounting to Hashem, we’ll not only have to face up to our aveiros, but also to the mitzvos we lost out on while preoccupied with those transgressions.

The Gra’s words came to mind when I was thinking about technology, because it’s important to consider not just the pros and cons of the modality itself, but also what positive aspects of our lives in the long-ago, pre-smartphone age have been supplanted by that modality.

In her parenting newsletter, novelist and New York Times columnist Jessica Grose, a mother of two young girls, writes of her nostalgia “for the landline as the locus of inter-household communication.” Her older daughter, a fifth-grader, doesn’t have a phone yet, but is still able to text her friends on a tablet, and “since my daughters’ friends are not forced to exchange grudging pleasantries on the phone with me to gain access to them,” Mrs. Grose writes, “I don’t think I know my children’s friends quite as well as my parents knew mine.”

It’s not the only thing being lost with the phaseout of the family phone. Julia Cho, writing in the Atlantic, rues “the loss of the shared social space of the family landline.” She explains:

For those of us who grew up with a shared family phone, calling friends usually meant first speaking with their parents, and answering calls meant speaking with any number of our parents’ acquaintances on a regular basis. With practice, I was capable of addressing everyone from a telemarketer to my mother’s boss to my older brother’s friend — not to mention any relative who happened to call. Beyond developing conversational skills, the family phone asked its users to be patient and participate in one another’s lives.

Mrs. Grose, for her part, says she’s not worried about her “kids’ ability to speak to adults. In some ways, my oldest is an old soul. Her friends’ parents tell me that when she comes for a playdate, she often spends time gabbing with the grown-ups at the kitchen counter. It doesn’t take long to teach a child basic phone skills and politeness. And in terms of comfort talking on the phone with people you don’t know, I didn’t grow up with cell phones or texting, and I still get nervous every time I have to call a new person….”

Still, she says, Cho’s argument about patience and connection resonates with her, because “many of our kids have an expectation of being able to reach anyone directly and immediately, and that pulls them out of the family bureaucracy in ways we can’t fully control or predict.”

I don’t need to explain the centrality of family in this forum. Yet taking the word “family” and making it a reality in all its fullness isn’t automatic. The quality of a family’s closeness and cohesion has infinite levels, and being a tight-knit unit whose members have spiritual and other goals pointed in the same general direction isn’t a given. It takes conscious work and forethought, especially on the part of the parents.


Part of the normal process of growing up is that kids begin to assert their independence, and it’s healthy for parents to allow their children to express that within the limits that will vary by family, by child, and by circumstance. But there’s a balancing act that’s needed to ensure that a child remains rooted in his family and that the family’s overall fabric remains strong and unbreakable even as its individual members venture forth and begin to construct their own lives.

The more ways there are to ensure that a family’s cohesive core stays intact, the better. And what these writers seem to be saying is that once upon a time, something as simple as the landline phone kept the members of a family connected to each other, needing each other. And that, in turn, became one more factor — among many others, of course — in the centrifugal force that kept everyone centered around the family unit and prevented them from flying off on their own.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a certain attitude of shoulder-shrugging that often prevails in our community regarding technology, one that waives the white flag of “It’s here to stay, let’s learn how to live with it.” Agreed, most of us aren’t going to return to the halcyon days of homes with a landline phone and nothing else.

Even so, it’s important to engage in the exercise of “cheshbon” regarding the pluses and minuses of the new gadgets in our lives — to consider not only the untoward things the replacements have wrought, but also what has been lost by rendering the “old-fashioned” things obsolete. It’s a worthwhile endeavor if only as a way to think anew about how to keep our families centered, strong and thriving, with or without a phone on the kitchen wall.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 925. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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