Dad William Tan details how he eventually got his teen son to detach himself from his digital device.

Recently, my friend X confided that he has been having trouble making conversation with his teenage boy. Almost every conversation between the father and son of late had ended badly.

X said remorsefully, “Somehow, nothing good comes out of my mouth when I talk to him these days.”

“Perhaps, it’s time to hold back your words. Just listen,” I said thoughtfully.

But he didn’t seem to find my advice useful.

X continued, “Our fights are always over his excessive use of his mobile phone!”

When it comes to the issue of phone addiction, parents think everything that their children have to say are just excuses. As for the children, they think that their parents are making a mountain out of a molehill in a draconian attempt to control their lives.

Trouble at home

I know what it’s like. I have had my own battles with my 13-year-old son, Conan, over the excessive use of his mobile phone, too.

It often infuriated me that Conan was always saying “Wait, just one minute”, so that he could finish a text, continue browsing a web page or play an online game a little longer with his friends. 

It was then that I realised the wisdom of my wife’s give-and-take tactics, and that her gradual approach to improving our boy’s habits by engaging him was working.”

Then, it got worse. His hands were stuck perpetually to the phone, while his eyes were constantly glued to the screen. Whether he was walking on the street, commuting, having his meals, even going to the bathroom, the mobile phone and the boy were inseparable!

When I finally had enough of telling him off, I issued an ultimatum, “Stop it! Or this will be the last time you see that phone!”

Thereafter, Conan would hurriedly put his mobile phone away before the tension escalated. However, it didn’t alleviate the problem as my son continued to use mobile phone excessively behind my back. 

Conan quietly told his mum, “Ever since Dad had thyroid problems two years ago, his temper has become really weird and fiery ― better stay away from him!”

In my desperate effort to solve this problem quickly, I had unwittingly created a rift between my son and me.

Engaging with my son to solve problems

So, my wife became the one who had to remind Conan constantly about his mobile phone usage. Although I initially thought she was doing no better than I, I noticed a crucial difference. However much this issue tested her patience, my wife never allowed it to sour her relationship with our son.

Their daily conversations continued unabated. On several occasions, my wife even managed to negotiate successfully with him to spend less time on his digital device. Without his mobile phone, Conan became more engaged and chatty.

My wife hugged him and teased, “Finally, my boy is back, escaped from the claws of your handphone. I really like how thoughtful you are. Please continue to keep your phone in your bag instead of holding it in your hand.”  

It was then that I realised the wisdom of my wife’s give-and-take tactics, and that her gradual approach to improving our boy’s habits by engaging him was working.

Stressing the importance of ground rules

Taking her cue, I changed tack and stopped correcting the boy. Instead, at opportune moments, I asked Conan to think about the whys of setting ground rules.

Seizing an opportunity in the midst of a lively family dinner conversation one day, I broached the topic, “I really enjoy listening to your views. Now you know why I have imposed a no-handphone policy at the dining table?”

Conan smiled and replied, “I know what you want to say.”

Then he stole my lines, “Mealtimes are not just time to eat. They are also social times to enjoy food, each other’s company and make conversation.”


Conan has even become the person who enforces this rule these days. One Saturday, my wife suddenly placed her entertainment tablet on the dining table.

I said, “Lunchtime is for family conversations ― no gadgets, please.”

My wife argued, “I am just letting the drama run, like the TV, that’s all. I don’t have my earpieces plugged in, I’m listening to you.”

On hearing that, Conan, who was sitting next to his mum, remarked, “That means I can also do this then.”

He picked up the novel he was reading earlier and pretended to continue reading while digging into the food, murmuring, “I don’t have my earpieces on either, I’m listening.”

My wife conceded, “All right, you father and son win this time. Don’t let me catch you in the same act!”

Conan and I laughed. True enough, we had been frequent “repeat offenders” in the past.

From a child’s perspective

I told Conan, “I noticed that you have learnt to use handphone moderately. I am thinking of sharing your experiences with my friend X.”

Conan advised, “Dad, tell your friend, ‘Don’t shove rules down your child’s throat. The more you stop them, the more they will resist… Give his child enough time to figure out how much is enough.”

“Precious insights I’ve gathered… Walk the talk with your children and expand their interest in other things.”

“Wouldn’t things get worse?” I asked, “That’s what worried me when you moved on from one thing to another on the Web over the last two years as if you would never get enough.”

Conan explained, “Well, some ground rules are necessary. But your friend needs to find an opportune time to discuss with his son; not threaten or preach, but bounce ideas like what are appropriate situations to use and not to use phones.”

He elaborated, “Ideas like no phone at dining table, while walking on the streets, and before completing homework make perfect sense. I am sure his son can figure it out too if the discussion is done at the right timing. Nobody likes to be told off.”

Then Conan added, “Next, your friend must walk the talk. It is easier to pick up new habits as a family, rather than expecting the child to do it alone.”

He concluded, “And the last step is to expand his interest in other things. As you can see, when I don’t have my phone, I simply switch to doing other things I like.”

What I’ve learnt

Here are precious insights I’ve gathered:

One: Don’t force your rules on children.

Two: Give your children enough time to figure out what is best.

Three: Find an opportune time to work out the rules together.

Four: Walk the talk with your children.

Five: Expand their interest in other things.

Every child is different, so the approach may not be the same for everyone. Nevertheless, I hope that these hard-earned lessons may be of use to you. Do share this article and let me know if it is of help.

William W K Tan, 48, an educational consultant and blogger, is a father of two sons aged, 14 and 16.

Photos: iStock

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