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

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

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.

Fat Tuesday is TOMORROW, are you ready?!

See how we celebrate here:

Mardi Gras Madness and a Hoodoo Movie Review

Check out our video on making a SUPER EASY Cheater King Cake here. Baby Jesuses available here, or if you can't get same day shipping, you can use a ring, or a bean, or a LEGO guy . . . whatever you've got! Just stick anything melt-able into the cake after it's baked.
Orange bundt cake pan here.
Fleur de lis bundt cake pan I got for Christmas this year, here.
CAY Printable Lent Set here. Want to cut them out the fast way? Use this 2.5 in circle punch for the medallions.
CAY Family Lent booklets here.

And . . . speaking of those videos, all the discount codes for Ignatius books at are good through the end of February. See this post for all the links. If you're looking for great Lenten reads for middle grade kids, the Vision Book Series of saint biographies has dozens of great choices (CAY919 for 25% off list price for those) or The Life of Jesus According to St. Luke, and Who is Jesus? His Life, His Land, His Time are both really informative and well-done (use code CAY719 for those two).