George Washington’s Rules for Mannerly Cell Phone Use in Company and Around One’s Children

by | Feb 24, 2020 | Kendra's Thoughts, Parenting, Parenting Advice | 18 comments

People seem to believe that cell phone use is this new, unprecedented behavior about which there are no established customs that could govern our conduct. George Washington and I beg to differ.

The technology might be different, but human desires remain pretty constant, and the rules that guided decent behavior among people in the past, are still relevant today. And some old time common sense has got to be more reasonable than what we usually see like/sharing its way around social media. That “advice” runs the gamut from Twitter mob mom-shaming of someone caught checking emails and possessing a baby at the SAME TIME, to the impassioned 2000 characters of mommy influencers who are never going to put their phones above the every whim of their children ever again as soon as they finish this social media post about it.

Both are silly emotional approaches to a real issue that needs a real solution. How should we balance cell phone use with the real people around us, both adults and children?

Enter George Washington. As a teenager, he copied out by hand 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. The rules actually predate the Revolutionary Era quite a bit, having been composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Presumably they were written out as part of an exercise in penmanship assigned by young Washington’s schoolmaster. 

Let’s take a look 👀 at rule the 18th:

Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unasked also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter.

That’s it. Everything is covered right there. It’s saying that when in Company, I shouldn’t be on my phone reading Letters, Books, or Cat Memes. So if I’m having dinner with the husband or I’m at the park with the homeschool group, my phone should stay in my pocket and I should be available for conversation. If a Necessity for the doing of it arises, I should apologize quickly to the IRLs and perhaps excuse myself for a moment.

But the goal is to be available to the people I’m with, and not transfer my attention to my phone, even if there’s a lull in the conversation and I feel that flash of boredom or curiosity.

But what if I’m in the company of my children, like, all the time?


That’s where the second half of the rule comes in handy. Of course my children are “more important” than my phone. They are also more important than eating or bathing or sleeping. It doesn’t follow that in the normal course of a day a mom shouldn’t attend to those things. 

But then, one can’t help but remember all the mom shaming about being on phones as one is attempting to answer emails and a preschooler rushes in, desperate to tell me about a dog she saw last week. So what *I* do, is imagine I am a fancy Revolutionary Era lady sitting at a writing desk, engaged in correspondence, when said preschooler enters.

What would she do? I imagine she would pleasantly remind little Prudence that it’s impolite to interrupt. So that’s what I do. I tell my kids that if they see me typing, it means I am talking to someone. If it’s a dog-seeing emergency of some sort,* by all means let me know, but otherwise, it can wait until I’m done.

That come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them part manifests as craning little necks wanting to put their faces between me and my phone. But as their opinions on my Facebook feed are not desired, I remind them to look not nigh

And that’s reasonable parenting in my book, as long as, when I’m done with a sensible amount of emailing/commenting/posting/scrolling, I put down my quill and go for a turn about the garden with the IRL people and give THEM my attention.

Because I think that’s where the actual problem lies. It’s not that I’m on my phone. It’s when I’m on my phone AND trying to do other important things at the same time. Quill Pen Lady, and George Washington, and sixteenth-century Jesuits would all have understood that Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation dictates that one must focus one’s attention on the task or the person at hand. 

Good manners means my kids should be respectful of my occupation at the moment if I’m on my phone. But good manners also means I should stay off my phone while we’re having lunch or doing schoolwork or having a conversation about dogs we once saw. 

Easier said than done, believe me, I know. I’m not saying I’m perfect at this, but I do try. And it really gives me comfort to know that, as much as we’d like to think we’re the only generation that’s ever dealt with distraction, it’s just not true. Every era has its own forms of the same old issues. And all we’ve ever been able to do is keep trying our best with what we’ve got.

* Dog-seeing emergency:

p.s. I really do love this little book. The rules are amusing to read, and the vast majority of them are very applicable to my life. You can see all the rules online here, or get a little hardback book here, or a copybook version here. My kids get to write lines from it if ever they slip into incivility or indecent behavior.

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  1. Dara

    This is exactly what I thought when I read one of those Jane Austen books where a heroine was being shamed for always having her nose in a book. Same problem, different forms of “reading.”

  2. Amanda

    Old GW to the rescue again. Solid advice.

  3. Jennifer Medley

    This is hilarious and so spot on! I’m sharing this with my Confraternity of Christian Mother’s group on our blog that I run… (linking/crediting everything back to you!) LOVE the memes. And as always, I really love and appreciate your common sense… Thank you for writing this!

    • Kendra

      Thank you and you’re welcome!

  4. Elizabeth

    I never cease to be amazed by your photoshopping skills!!!!

    • Margaret

      When little faces DO attempt to lurk between you and your screen, is there a go-to phrase you usually employ to quickly remind them to stop?

      Furthermore, there was recently a scenario where I found my oldest two (4&3) looking at our friend’s phone over his shoulder. I quickly reminded them of our family rule, but the friend interjected that he didn’t mind, he was about to show them videos from his recent ski trip, etc… I still made the children stop, and they received a consequence for breaking the family rule. But, it’s awkward when our children – and other adults! – join forces to protest our policy. Have you found a polite method for reminding your kids of your family rules, even while other adult rule-breakers/company/extended family are listening?

      • Kendra

        I usually say, “take your face out of my phone” 😛 And, yeah, we also have a hard rule against our kids looking at other people’s phones, and other grownups are a challenge to this effort. But like all of our rules, we expect our kids to own them and self-enforce them. So, they have to say, “Oh, no, that’s okay Mr. Jones, we were about to go outside.” Or whatever, but definitely not, “My maaahmm says we can’t look at phones.” Because that’s weak sauce.

        • RD

          Tricky. My mom lives with us currently and is addicted to screens if you ask me. I don’t use my phone for any kid entertainment like games or streaming or anything. But my mom likes to lure the kids over with her phone and show them random youtube videos that I’ve not been asked about of course. It’s maddening!

          • Kendra

            That certainly does complicate things. Are you looking for advice or commiseration? If it’s the latter: Ugh! That stinks! (and stop reading 🙂 )

            If you wanted advice: I’d take a two-pronged approach. I’d respectfully share my concerns with the adult party, and hope to get her on board, and suggest an alternate activity like reading books (and keep a basket full of them near where she likes to sit). And, if the kids are over the age of reason, I’d require them to follow our family rules and face the consequences if they don’t, even if there are grownups tempting them. Because that’s just real life. And perhaps the adult in question, if not affected by my reasoned pleas, would be affected by the “whipping boy” approach. If she saw the kids losing other screen privileges for some number of days every time they looked at her phone, maybe she’d stop trying to lure them over?!

  5. Cami

    I’m hoping this tidbit makes it into your future book titled The Return of Civility: Bringing Common Sense Manners and Logistics from the Past into Today’s Homes… or something like that. I personally need a guide to lay out for me basic logistics of keeping order and sanity in running a large homeschooling household (I was an only child with a single parent, so….?!?) and ways to guide my family toward virtue through good manners. We are heavy on the boys in this house, 4 sons, 1 daughter, so I don’t really sense good manners are all that natural for the boys especially. And then just going out in public, there aren’t a lot of good manners flying around out there to set any example for my kids. Let’s not even go into modern entertainment… Anyway, this is great! Of course those before us in many ways seemed much more civilized.

    • Kendra

      Hah! That’s a great title.

  6. Megan Owens

    I would like to hear your take on how to politely handle mom having some downtime with as few interruptions as possible. I homeschool my children. We are around each other all day, every day. In the afternoon, once all the schooling and chores have been finished, I would like to read a book for 20 minutes or so while the baby is napping. This only works out once, maybe twice per week. I am ignoring my older kids in favor of my mental health for a brief time, but I don’t want to set a bad example. How would you handle this?

    Thanks for all your parenting posts over the years. Your advice has been a great help to me and my family.

    • Kendra

      You’re welcome!

      Your comment is an issue very dear to my heart. As an introvert with ten kids, six of whom are at home all day, it’s important to my ability to function well as their mother to be able to have some quiet time in the afternoon. So it’s a very high priority parenting goal around here.

      In the afternoon, I put babies and toddlers down for naps, and my big kids are not allowed to disturb me during so time unless someone is bleeding profusely, unconscious, being kidnapped, or the house is on fire and you’ve already tried to put it out yourself.

      Bothering me for reasons other than that, or waking babies up by stomping or fighting incurs drastic consequences. School age kids who can’t manage being up and quiet get to take naps too.

      It takes effort on the front end to get the understanding and expectations set, but in our house it has worked very well.

  7. Emily

    Good piece… made me consider technology usage around not just children but also adults.

    Do you have any comment on usage of technology for teens? Such as cell phones? Or social media accounts? Curious about your approach. Thanks!

    • Kendra

      Thanks, Emily. None of my kids has a smartphone or social media. They have an old iPhone that they use for music and audiobooks only. We used to use an iPad for some school stuff and limited games, but it was more trouble than it was worth, so my grade school and younger kids do no devices (except for music and audiobooks). We’ve done a kindle for 8th grade graduation that they use for email, music, and audiobooks, and at that point they also can do group chats with school friends (that I keep an occasional eye on). Around sixteen they get a flip phone for calls and (laborious) texting. They lose these devices if they’re not being used for their betterment or not keeping their grades up. I think we’ll likely get our oldest a smartphone when he graduates from high school. But maybe we’ll just wait until he can buy one for himself!

  8. Elissa

    I’m a little late to the party here, but I love this! Have you read Them Rules of Civility’ by Amor Towles? It’s one of my favorite novels to be written in the the last 10 years.

    • Kendra

      I haven’t! I’ll have to put it on the list.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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