Parenting Perspective: Cell Phones

April 2, 2010 8:44:25 AM PDT
Here's a question many parents have to deal with as children become "tweens" and sometimes even earlier. When should you get your child a cell phone? There are no hard and fast rules to answer this question, but here's what we've done and some of the reasons behind our decisions.

We gave both of our older sons, Jason and Billy, cell phones when they started middle school (6th grade). To us, middle school represents a time when children go through many transitions and when they're expected to begin taking on additional responsibilities. It's also when they become more independent. So the start of middle school made sense to us. Once we gave the boys their phones, we also learned that the phones, which are clearly a privilege, give us many teaching opportunities, in addition to helping us keep track of the boys.

In middle school, "tweens" begin to have more activities and freedom after school. The cell phones enable our sons to call us for permission if they want to go over to a friend's house or "hang out" at the local pizza shop or Starbucks. We made it clear that they have to call us for permission if they want to do things like that, which adds the responsibility of making sure they have their phones with them and that the batteries are charged. If they can't make the call, they can't go out.

It also gives us a way to get in touch with them if we're held up at work, or if the sitter's going to be late, or if another parent is driving carpool. We also sometimes call just to check in and see if they are where they're supposed to be.

We started out with an inexpensive, pay-as-you-go phone for our oldest son. When he showed us he was able to hold onto it without losing it for several months, we added him to our "Friends and Family" plan and a phone with a few more "bells and whistles. He had a limited number of minutes, which meant he had to think about whether to use them. This cut down on unnecessary chatter at our expense. As he got older, he wanted more minutes. We decided he would have to earn them and used the added minutes as incentives to get him to be more consistent about keeping his room clean. When he went over his allotment, the extra cost came out of his allowance.

When our middle son forgot one time to take his cell phone out of his pants pocket and it went through the wash and was ruined, we didn't run out to buy him a new phone. He got a hand-me-down that another family member wasn't using. And when his contract time on the original phone was up, he had to pay for the fancier model he wanted from his allowance savings. He also wanted to get insurance, so that if he had another mishap, he wouldn't have to buy a whole new phone. Again, we used this as an opportunity to teach him responsibility. He got new chores added to his list of things to do around the house to pay off the cost of insurance.

Then there was the whole issue of texting. Now that the boys are in 8th and 11th grades, texting seems to be their primary form of communication with their friends. Again, we see a text plan as a privilege, not a right, so when the boys wanted unlimited texting, it came with responsibilities attached. Now, they are responsible for taking out all the trash. If I have to remind them too often, the text plan will be cut. Believe me, it's a great incentive.

With three kids who are often at three different activities at any given time, I find our ability to check in with our cell phones a great advantage. But I also think the phones can be a great way to teach responsibility as well.