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What They’ll Never Know

You would think resourceful children born in our digital age would know how to find a simple phone number.

But if my kids are any guide, basic skills that were second nature to my kith and kin back when dinosaurs roamed the land are completely lost on the iPad-wrangling, website-wizened, smart-phone-wielding youth of today.

An example: My twelve-year-old daughter wants to call a friend but doesn’t know her number. No problem, I say. Just look it up in the telephone book.

“In the what?”

In the phone book.

“There’s a book?”

Yes, it’s called the phone book.

“An actual book?”

Sure, even for grown-ups like me, thumbing through the phone book is an act past its prime, as alien to today’s kids as writing on blackboards or “rolling up the car windows.” (And didn’t we put our white pages out with the recycling anyway?)

But while I wasn’t looking, the Planet Earth I grew up on apparently spun off its analog axis and got replaced by a world where you live literally at your fingertips and don’t have to actually do anything to get things done.

It occurs to me that I should take stock of exactly how far my children have gone down the push-button, ever-programmable, voice-activated road. And it won’t hurt them to hear about my old happy trails, either. After all, we’re now spending as much on our monthly TV, phone, and Internet bill as I used to spend on my rent. More, actually.

I quickly discover that the kids cannot imagine a telephone that does not travel with you everywhere you go. Talking on a phone that is connected to a base by a cord is an abstract concept at best. They also have only a vague idea of what a telephone cord actually is (“Wait – you have one in your office!” says my ten-year- old son). But they have never seen one being used in polite society.

To tell them now that there was once a time when there were probably no more than three phones in any given home–and that one of them was bolted to the wall in the kitchen and had a cord as long as a garden hose – is to bring only stares and gape-mouthed awe.

And pity, too, if I’m reading them correctly. How pathetic to have to share a phone with other members of the family, their faces seem to say, to have to scrawl important numbers on a tattered list taped to the kitchen wall, to be forced to stretch the coiled cord down the hall, around the corner, and behind a closed door to get a little privacy when you tried to ask a girl out on a date.

Back then, I tell them, we also didn’t talk on the phone that much (unless we were talking to our best friend about the girl we just called). And the phone didn’t ring all the time like it does now, either. At most, it might ring two or three times a day—that’s total inbound calls for everyone in the house. If the phone rang more than that, or at any odd hour, that meant only one thing: Somebody’s in a ditch.

The kids just sit there. I try to lighten the mood by sharing an old telephone trick. Did you know that you used to be able to find out what time it was by dialing “TIGER11”? A lady’s recorded voice would come on and say “At the tone, the time will be. . .”

I pause for reaction. Still stony silence.

“Why would you do that to find out what time it was?” asks Lucy. “Couldn’t you just look at the phone?”

Okay, maybe I’m just jealous of the world my kids live in today. After all, when I was growing up, my buddies and I dreamed of talking on private walkie-talkies with ranges that stretched farther than two houses away. Now every kid has a cell phone to chat and text their way around pesky parents.

And maybe I should be grateful for progress, too. The kids can’t believe we used to drop merely a hint or two when our parents needed to know what we might like for birthday presents. Today, our children email us lushly formatted spreadsheets of multiple gifts and their descriptions, complete with helpful web links that show us exactly where to find each item and what color to choose.

At least I can show the kids true phone etiquette when we watch classic TV shows. Here’s Marlo Thomas now, getting ready to make a phone call on “That Girl.” She picks up the old-style receiver from her rotary phone and raises her index finger.

“What’s she doing?” asks Lucy.

She’s calling her boyfriend.

“That’s really weird.”

Calling her boyfriend?

“No that. What is she doing?”

She’s dialing. That’s how you used to dial a phone.


Weeks later, Lucy and I spot an old rotary phone in an antique shop. I try once more to tell her of my times, gone now forever, and the gut-wrenching terror of calling a girl for a date. How I would screw up enough courage to dial just six of the seven numbers, and how it seemed like an eternity until my finger finally let go of the dial on the seventh to let it click-click-click down, fast as my beating heart, past all the letters of the alphabet stamped next to the digits, to make the dreamed-of connection.

I was just about to tell her what the letters on the old dial meant, but I didn’t need to. She knew right away.

“They’re for texting.”

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. The father of two, Tony has written the DadZone since 2009.
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