Why Louis C.K. doesn’t let his kids have phones

The video has gone pretty viral over the past few days. On Conan O’Brien’s show last week, Emmy-award-winning comedian Louis C.K. explained why he didn’t want to give his daughters (aged 7 and 10) smartphones. [You can watch it at Slate.com.] What he says was – as my friend and fellow parent Anastasia Goodstein commented in Facebook – profound. But to get the depth of it, listen all the way through.

He gives two reasons, an important one about how kids make and learn from mistakes in their social development and one about all of us human beings. Here’s the first one:

“They don’t look at people when they talk on [their phones], and they don’t build empathy.” I’ll let you watch how he illustrates that, but what I think he’s saying is that when children are mean to peers, “they’re trying it out.” By “it,” he means interaction, socialization. He seems to be saying that it’s hard to learn empathy when you can’t see someone’s reaction to your meanness. Meanness isn’t just meanness, I’m hearing him say; for kids it’s also a test, an experiment. They put it out there to see what the reaction is and learn from that. He’s not talking about the intentional, repeated kind usually associated with bullying; he seems to be talking about kids learning by working through things together, and how hard it is to do that digitally. Researchers are working on the disinhibition (lack of visual cues) part in and with social media (e.g., see “Related links” below this post). But I’ll put my takeaways at the end.

Not always filling in-between times

Then there’s Louis C.K.’s reflection on giving ourselves time just to be and to feel – which I think – whether or not we give our kids smartphones – is right at the heart of what we need to help them with as they grow up. They can learn this with or without technology, but in this tech-riddled world, sometime they’ll probably have to learn it with the technology too, so why not with their parents there? But here’s how this dad’s seeing it right now:

“The thing is, you need to build the ability to just be yourself and not be doing something,” he told Conan, who let him just talk. “That’s what the phones are taking away – the ability to just sit there [if "the phones" really were doing this, we'd really have problem!]…. That’s being a person…. Because underneath everything in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty thing … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. It’s down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car and you start going, ‘Oh no, here it comes, I’m alone’…. That’s why we text and drive…. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

Food for thought. He continued, “I was in my car one time and a Bruce Springsteen song comes on … “Jungleland” … and it made me really sad. And I go, ‘oh no, I’m getting’ sad – I gotta get the phone and write hi to, like, 50 people’…. So I started … reaching for the phone, and I said, ‘You know what? Don’t. Just be sad…. Just … let it hit you like a truck.’ And … I pulled over and I just cried…. And it was beautiful…. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings, because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies. It has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness, so I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness….

Time just to be 

“Because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone [sounded like "therapy," but an expletive was beeped over too] and you never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kind of satisfied with your product and then you die. So,” he laughed and concluded, “that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”

Phones are for all kinds of things, including staying connected, filling in between times and keeping sadness – or just humanness – at bay. Why do our kids want phones? That first reason, mostly, as they get to the most social phase of growing up. That’s why they say to us “all my friends have phones.” Depending on how social (or socially aspirational) our kids are, their phones can wrap their social context around them – 24×7, if they haven’t figured out how to manage the social part. Sometimes the best way to do that is through learning by doing, being part of the online/offline social milieu and figuring out as they go how to self-regulate or get some emotional distance from social drama if or when it happens (not that there’s automatically a big social scene on all kid’s phones – it depends on the kid). Whether or not we give them a phone, we can’t really make that learning happen for them. But we can figure it out for ourselves and, in the process, help them see the value of that other thing Louis C.K. talks about: time to reflect on what’s going on, or just to feel things all the way through and see where that takes us. Like he says, that’s one of the things that “builds empathy.”

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