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Celling Out?

My son thinks he's ready for a cell phone. But am I?

Negotiations have begun.

My fifth grader, Jacob, is dying for a cell phone. My husband and I have made it clear that the earliest he will get one is sixth grade. He’s already claiming his sixth grade year starts in June. I was hoping to hold out as long as possible.

I’m trying to determine why I’m so resistant. Part of me thinks a child doesn’t need a cell phone. I certainly managed to grow up without one. I actually took public transportation to and from school in downtown Chicago every day without so much as a “C u soon!” text message.

Are times so different now in terms of our kids’ safety? Or are we just programmed to believe that we should be in contact with them at all times, just because we can?

Some of Jacob’s friends already have phones, which is why he is lobbying so hard. The first week one of his pals got a phone, the kid called our house five times a day from the new toy … even though he was at home, probably sitting right next to the land line.

Jacob loves to use his friends’ phones. On his way home from school, he often calls to ask if he can go to a friend’s house, knowing our steadfast rule that he has to come home and do homework before he plays. He knows the answer is usually "no," but enjoys the caché of the call.  

The consensus I have gathered around Maplewood is that many kids get a phone when they go to Middle School. Some kids walk through town (as Jacob will next year), tempted by candy at Maplewood Stationers, a Bagel Chateau soda or a slice from Roman Gourmet. I see others gathering around school to socialize and dawdle before heading home or to their activities. Basically, they are out of our sight more than before.

It will be convenient to check in with him if he’s late. It may also provide some sense of security in a new situation to know I’m a phone call away and can arrange a ride if necessary. The phone will be helpful in case of emergency or if practice lets out early … and later on if he wants to avoid getting in a car with someone who’s been drinking.

But I cringe at the thought of interminable texting and pressure to keep up with the latest model and features—not to mention the extra cost. I dread the inevitable aggravation I’ll feel every time I call and don’t get an immediate response. There will be privacy issues to iron out too. Jacob already knows how to delete texts off my phone so I can’t see what he’s saying to friends. At what age does he have a right to confidentiality. Or, more essentially, is it wrong to read his texts?

I am not looking forward to bringing that energy into my house so my younger boys—who don’t know or care about having a phone now— will be tempted by its appeal. How soon before five-year-old Eli is demanding a blackberry?

My husband and I will have to determine phone freedoms for our family and stick to them. But I can’t help worrying that it will become another thing to argue about with our already headstrong pre-teen son. 

There are many parental quandaries we already have to navigate: discipline, bedtime, food and TV use. These challenges I feel more equipped to handle, looking back at my own childhood, or the experience of friends with older children. But kids’ cell phone use is a 21st century indulgence we have to figure out as we go.

There’s plenty of web chatter about the right time to get your child a phone (if you can afford one), but no one will give an exact age, because it depends on the individual. Some—like Jacob—are ready for responsibility. Others, perhaps more fearful, may need the security the phone offers.

In my search for guidance, I discovered a contract you can print and review with your kids before they start using a cell phone (see link here). It emphasizes the phone as a privilege the primary purpose of which is to keep your child safe. The agreement asks the child to consent to several points, including not exceeding minutes and text messages, and a nighttime curfew for the phone to go off. The child must also pledge to not use the phone to take inappropriate photos, or bully other kids, or drive while using it. The consequences for breaking our family contract would be giving the phone a timeout.  

We are reasonable parents and fortunate to have the means to get Jacob a phone when he starts Middle School. We’ll hammer out a usage deal that makes sense for our family. I’ve realized I’m not fighting the minutes or the minutia.

I’m resisting the phone as a symbol of Jacob’s increasing independence. It’s another thing to distract him from schoolwork, hobbies, and—most importantly—his family. Every time he dials, he opens a window to the world beyond us and gets closer to becoming a young adult. I’m not ready to hear that message.   

mark slade January 20, 2011 at 04:36 AM
My son's mother recently bought him a cell phone. Problem is that my son is only in 3rd grade and i find that the phone can be a huge distraction. He gets texts and call during playdates, during dinner and it quickly became a huge nuisance. Plus, most of his fellow 3rd graders don't have cell phones and parents i have spoken with feel 3rd grade is way too soon, unless you are a latchkey kid. The good news is that Jakob realized on his own what a distraction his phone can be, at least most of the time (tonight i caught him playing video games on it, ARGH!).
Sheila Baker Gujral January 20, 2011 at 11:58 AM
I was also very hesitant for the same reasons. My kids got cell phones once they started doing after school sports and their schedules would fluctuate (6th and 7th grade, respectively). I find it a terrific way to communicate with them. I even use it when we're both in the house -- no more yelling upstairs! They can't tune it out the way they can my voice.
Carolyn Maynard-Parisi January 20, 2011 at 01:49 PM
Brooke, were you in my house last night?? We just had this exact conversation with our 5th grade son. He says "all" of his friends already have phones. I say - who cares? He has no urgent need to text his friends all day. Probably we'll cave when he heads to Middle School.

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