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Teaching A Kid To Use The Phone In 2011

As my son gets older, I have been encouraging him to place his own phone calls. I have him make the call to a family member to say thank you for a birthday present. Sometimes he has to call a friend to ask about homework. Since I was 33 when my son was born, the technology to which he is exposed is quite a lot different than it was when I was his age. We occasionally hit gaps in his knowledge that I just took for granted that he knew, and it has occurred to me that the phone system is a Victorian dinosaur.

My son was born in the 21st century. The phone system was born in the 19th century. Three years after the telephone was patented, my great-great grandfather took a horse drawn wagon from the family homestead to look for work. His letter home describes a five day journey to make a trip that would only take an hour and a half by car today. Think of all of the technology that has been invented since 1876, and it is astounding that we still use landline telephones.

When I was a kid, we had a home phone in the hallway. Everyone did. It was in some central location in the house so you could hear it ring, I suppose, and no matter how many people lived in the house, they all had the same number. There was no Call Waiting, no voice mail, and no Caller ID. Because you were taking a call that could be for anyone in the house, you had to be prepared to take a message. There was a paper and pencil by the phone. People learned telephone manners. They said,"Hello" when they answered the phone, or something like "Smith Residence." Sometimes, people got busy signals and had to call back. If you left a message, you had to tell the other person your name and your phone number. When we got a new fangled "touch tone" phone, we learned about the "pound key." My son doesn't know about any of this.

In my son's lifetime, he has only ever made calls on cell phones. He doesn't know the phone numbers of family and friends because they are in his address book on his phone. In his experience, each person has their own phone number, and they all have Caller ID so he doesn't even need to know his own phone number. He's never heard a busy signal, and he doesn't know what a pound sign is. 

One day, I told him that he should call his great-grandparents to say thank you for a present. He called and then sat there listening to the phone for a really long time. After a while he hung up without saying anything, and called again. After the third time that he did this I asked him what the heck he was doing. He said that there was a weird noise on the line when he called them, so he was just listening and waiting for it to stop. I had him call again so I could hear it. It was a busy signal. He was ten years old and didn't know what a busy signal was. If you think about it, when was the last time that you heard one? Nearly everyone has Call Waiting, now. At that moment we were transported back in time a couple of decades and I had to explain how phones worked in the olden days.

This morning my son told me that he needed a refill on his asthma inhaler. I thought that this was an excellent time to have him learn to use the Walgreens refill service where you call in and put in the prescription number. I talked him through it. You call this number, you have to listen to the choices and pick the number for a refill. Then you type in this number. Pick the option to pick it up tomorrow and type in "0800" for 8 AM. I thought that we were good. He thought he was good. He went downstairs to make the call - using his Mac and the built-in phone in gmail, of course, not an actual telephone. Time passed. Much time passed. I went downstairs and asked him what had happened. He was being redirected to speak to someone in the pharmacy department, he said. I asked him about options he had picked, and then it struck me - the pound sign. "I don't know what a pound sign is," he told me. Of course not. No one prints signs with things like "20# flour" any more. Also, he normally uses Web sites to find information, not phone systems.

The funny thing is, while I am having to teach my son things like phone manners and what a busy signal is, I have adults at work that have lost their phone manners. I call them for a conference call on Skype and they don't say, "Hello." They click the button to accept the call, and then just sit there. I like Skype much better than the Victorian phone system because people have an name instead of a long string of numbers. You can see if they are on-line or offline, or busy. You can even just type a quick message if you don't want to talk. Joining big groups together is easy - just add them to the call. The only thing is, even though Skype is very modern and works great, we still need the Victorian courtesy of saying, "Hello" when we answer the phone. I guess some things stay the same.


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