What was I thinking, buying my sixth grader a Smartphone?

When I was a child psychologist, people used to pay for my parenting advice. My kids now find that hilarious. I mess up, but that sad fact shouldn’t prevent me from helping others.

My sixth grader has a smartphone. There. I admitted it. And my fourth grader has already saved up enough money to buy hers at the same age her brother bought his: fifth grade. It’s only fair.

Now I feel like I have to explain how this happened. So skip the following three paragraphs if you’re a sad sack like me. Parents of those without smart phones, read on for just one of the million excuses middle school parents have for this mistake.

As James started fifth grade, I vowed to hold out. I idolized a friend who’d reluctantly bought her eighth grader a flip phone to take on his class trip. But a few months in, James, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, asked to borrow my phone to call a friend. Then another friend, and another friend. Social interaction! When the friends’ parents answered their cell phones, he politely asked to speak to the friends. Maturity! Next thing I knew, he asked to take a solo bike ride on the levee near our house. Independence!

Years before, we’d given up our landline. To encourage James’s welcome burst of social interaction, maturity, and independence, the natural next step was his own phone. Still, I hesitated. Screen addiction is a major concern among teens and adults with autism. I pictured James degenerating from a sporty tween into a flabby, pallid barnacle on our sofa. What’s more, the dangers of social media in middle school are well-documented, autistic or not. 

As I researched phones, though, the simplest alternative by far turned out to be an older generation iPhone. So in addition to a phone I’d be buying James a mini computer. On which he could Google whatever he liked. And watch You Tube.

My husband discovered the Screen Time app on the iPhone, which allows a parent to set some restrictions. Control! We went ahead with the phone. Within a month, James figured out how to get around Screen Time. Despite his real efforts to follow my limits, James’s Internet urge was so strong that I had to hide the phone when I didn’t want him to use it. Like my own parents hid the bourbon. James turned out to be a good seeker. He can’t find his pants, but he can find his phone.

I hadn’t been looking for something new to argue about. But the genie was out of the bottle, and the phone had become yet another source of conflict. 

I should have known better. My own parents did, having bought me a 15-year-old Datsun rather than a 747 for my first car. Kids learn best when they start low and go slow. We roll over, then crawl, then walk, then run, then bike, then drive, then fly. Where is the Datsun of cell phones?

The good news is, innovators are starting to see the appeal of a middle ground between two stringed-up cans and an iPhone. Last week, I tried out Relay, which is a sort of combination walkie talkie and one-button phone. More options already exist, and more are on the way. The choice isn’t binary, as it seemed to me last year. 

If I want to, I can demote James from an iPhone to a device that’s more phone, less computer. Better, I can start my younger child with a more limited device than James’s. And face her wrath. Even better, I can encourage other parents to learn from my rookie mistakes and seek out their own Datsun phones in the first place. Cool kids be damned. 

By giving us the iPhone, technology solved a lot of little problems: getting lost, losing touch, missing out. Maybe technology can save our kids from the huge problems of screen addiction and the mental health sequelae of early smart phone use.

Relay is half-price for Amazon Prime Day, July 12-19! Click here for details.

Executive Functions


Executive Functions are those secretarial tasks your brain performs for you, and they’re developing over the course of childhood and young adulthood. So kids’ Executive Function abilities vary, and luckily they’ll improve.

The main Executive Function we use on vacations is thinking ahead. Most of the time, I estimate that James is thinking about 30 seconds ahead:

My toe hurts. Let’s go home!

While I’m liable to get bogged down thinking 30 years ahead:

James is going to have to wear velcro shoes to his office. 

James starts each day of a vacation bursting with ideas about what to do. He doesn’t take into account how many hours there are in a day, how much energy each member of the family will have, money, travel time, etc. That’s all my job.

For many kids, planning ahead requires abstract thinking abilities they don’t yet have.

Luckily, since James began to self-regulate a few years ago, he collapses as in the photo above. In the past, he’d wear himself out and then wonder:

  1. why he felt so bad
  2. when the next activity was coming

When on vacation, keep in mind that your child needs your help thinking ahead more than ever. Some examples of how this can impact a vacation day:

  • Walking past an ice cream shop and wanting it right away. You have dinner reservations in an hour.
  • Seeing a unicorn Beanie Boo in a souvenir shop that’s easily available at home and costs his entire souvenir allowance.
  • Refusing to take a 10-minute walk to see a beautiful waterfall because “I’m too tired,” then running around the hotel lobby like a maniac instead.
  • Having a fit because you “take so long” to get out of the house, as you collect items you might need over the course of the day: snacks, swimwear, sunscreen, tickets, etc.

It’s always the same, even as James ages. He’s the enthusiast, and I’m the worrier. When we work together, though, it’s a better day for both of us.

My essay for Mother.ly about a Disney vacation.




We’ve spent 9 of the past 12 summer vacations in the same part of the North Carolina mountains. In fact, we’re there right now.

My favorite way to keep things familiar is to bring our dog, Charlie, along. We’ve also stayed multiple years in the same rental house, eaten at the same restaurants, and visited the same attractions.

By keeping certain parts of the trip constant, we’ve been able to get James comfortable enough to accept all sorts of changes and new experiences. After three summers mulling it over and driving past, he finally tried — and loved — zip lining.

And get this: it may sound like a small thing, but it’s HUGE. We always stop for fast food on the long drive up to NC. This time, James took a break from his just-the-meat-and-the-bun-please hamburger to try my fully dressed cheeseburger.

The more we respect what James needs to keep constant, the more of those inevitable changes, disappointments, and novelties he can tolerate.

Here’s how I do it:

Planning: Repeat parts of an old vacation. Even if we go to a new place, we can stay in the same chain hotel on the way, bring the same pet, eat pizza the first night.

Packing: Comfort items, of course. But also specific types of snack or breakfast food that might be hard to find where we’re going.

Daily scheduling: There’s no need to stick to a rigid schedule just to keep things organized. The weather in the mountains is liable to scuttle any plans we make anyway. We make a list of must-do traditional activities and sprinkle the calendar with these, checking them off as we go. This way we can show James that some preferred event has already happened or is upcoming.


After: We make photo albums and reminisce to our hearts’ content. Nowadays, it’s the inconsistencies we remember fondly, not the same old stuff.

Further reading:

My essay in Ann Arbor Family about anxiety.

My essay on Brain Child about James’s long-ago fear of hand dryers.


Sensory Issues









James has a love-hate relationship with the beach. It’s a warring collection of sensory disruptions and delights:

  • wet feet / sea foam
  • wet bathing suit / the deep pressure of immersing himself
  • wet towel / warm sun
  • sand between the toes / sand castles with moats
  • sun in the eyes / sea breezes
  • rogue waves up the nose / body surfing
  • jellyfish stings / sea life

Hotel rooms are the same way. Just like waves and sand at the beach, there are things you can count on in a hotel room: bedspreads, ice bucket, closet. For highly sensitive kids, though, differences stick out:

  • Sight: lights too dim or too bright, garish carpet patterns, ceiling fans
  • Hearing: humming electricity, noisy neighbors, loud plumbing
  • Touch: scratchy sheets, mushy pillows, gritty carpet
  • Taste: it’s anyone’s guess what’s for dinner, and the water might taste different
  • Smell: Cleaners, cigarettes, pets, pool chemicals

All kids are different, and what bothers them one year might be no big deal the next. Also, many kids with sensory sensitivities can’t verbalize them. At age 12, James has just started complaining about specific discomforts. In the past, he’d have a tantrum and I’d have to guess at what was wrong.

So keep sensory issues in the back of your mind as you try to get your child comfortable in a new setting. Introduce sensory fixes when you think your child is uncomfortable:

  • sheets or towels from home to replace scratchy hotel linens
  • goggles for eyes that sting
  • sunglasses
  • extra bathing suits and towels to replace wet ones
  • pillow spray
  • slippers for scratchy carpets

When preparing, think about what might ease sensory discomfort. But keep these items under wraps. Your child might surprise you with his flexibility!

Further reading:

  • An autism-friendly beach town in South Carolina.
  • A PSA puts you in the shoes of an overwhelmed young woman with autism.


hotel bed

Behold, James and Margot after a long day of car travel.

I’d much rather tiptoe around these slumbering cuties than tame the two whiny, cantankerous monsters they’d have ended up without access to a hotel room.

When kids are in school, they follow a routine that meets most kids’ needs for sleep, food, quiet activity, and active play. Travel can turn that routine on its head.

It’s amazing how well some kids self-regulate when routines are disrupted. Some examples:

  • an infant falls asleep in a stroller or baby sling
  • a toddler stands on his head in an airport lounge
  • a tween pulls a granola bar out of her carryon bag

Other kids, among them reluctant travelers like James, need help staying regulated. When dysregulated, they’re unhappy, defiant, and impulsive. As a result, they might not accept what they need most when they most need it. The most frustrating example for me is refusing to sleep when overtired.

Advance planning is the best way to support kids’ self-regulation during travel. Work around kids’ sleep and meal schedules, and what times of day they’re most active. A typical school day is a good guide.

Travelers can’t always avoid disruption. When it happens, plan to help your child recover. Make naps seem like the day’s main event. Keep physical demands to a minimum, hoping for a zone-out in the stroller or car. If they’re up too late, it’s always best to put them to sleep early the next night, rather than to place all your hopes on sleeping late.

If your child is dysregulated, your job is to to recognize it and help him compensate. Watch out for drowsiness or fussiness, or — just as likely — wildness and lack of focus. Then, help your child to meet expectations but don’t expect his best behavior. These aren’t the times your child will try a new food, skip a meal, kiss an elderly relative, tolerate a broken iPad. Think Goldfish crackers, a well-loved movie or book, and a comfort item like a stuffed toy or blanket.

Some trips are so short, or so full of changes, that there’s not enough time for your child to self-regulate during the trip. Our best, calmest trips are at least a week long, staying in the same place the whole time. If we return to the same place the following year, James adjusts quicker and might actually try something he’d refused to try the year before.

Further reading: Jessie Hewitson on traveling to the same place every year.

Coming in June: Travel Tip Tuesdays


Notice anything special about this photo of James?

He’s not wearing socks! It’s such a rare event I had to have proof.

Travel is broadening. But it can also be so stressful that we think twice about bothering with it.

Next month, I plan to post a blog entry every Tuesday on the topic of travel with kids who might be reluctant, ambivalent, or high-maintenance travelers.

I’ll focus on four topics:

  1. Self-regulation
  2. Sensory issues
  3. Sameness
  4. Executive Functions


Please use these entries as an opportunity to share any of your own ideas in the comments.