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Mommy, Can I Have A Cell Phone...?
Be prepared... the question is coming sooner than you think!
By Terri Hunter-Davis
I am a bad mother. My 10-year-old daughter does not have her own cell
phone. Never mind that she doesn't travel solo and has not been
anywhere for more than five minutes without access to someone else's
phone. Never mind that her friends often call our house (interestingly,
she rarely makes calls on her own). Poor, deprived tween — she needs a
cell phone and it's all my fault!
What, you don't think I'm so bad? Thanks, I needed to hear that.
is, our decision to firmly say "not yet" is not unusual. But neither is
it necessarily right, at least not for every family. The choice to
allow — or not allow — a pre-teen to have his or her own cell phone is
an individual one. It has much to do with responsibility, maturity,
need and circumstances.
When? When? When?
These days, it's not uncommon for 9- and 10-year-olds to start clamoring for their own phone. The Center on Media and Child Health reports that 54 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds will have their "own" cell phone within the next three years.
children are individuals: one sibling may desperately want one; another
sibling may not care a whit. Chances are, your child started forming
phone habits much earlier, starting with weekly babbling to Grandma.
You'll probably have a good idea if your child will want a cell phone
long before she or he asks for one. Start thinking of your answers
ahead of time, and you'll have a much easier time when the topic
finally comes up!
Need vs. want
Your definition of
"need" will almost certainly differ from your child's. You may think
your child needs a cell phone to let you know she arrived safely at her
swim lesson. She may think she needs the phone to talk to her friend
after that swim lesson. And there's always the "need" that arises when
a classmate, neighbor or teammate has one, too.
In the eyes of
many parents, the desire for a cell phone is little more than the
junior version of keeping up with the Joneses. Using my daughter's
social circle as an example, out of about 40 friends and acquaintances
(all in the 9- to 12-year-old age bracket), there are perhaps four or
five who have cell phones. The strident pleas for a phone increase
exponentially when she's around the kids who have them. Most of her
friends' parents agree that there's usually not much need for a
10-year-old to have one. (Though the ones who want to ban phones (and
boys!) till their daughters reach, say 30, may have a tough road ahead!)
the 8-12 age bracket is a time when many children learn – and earn –
more independence. Some older ones are allowed to take public transit
to or from school (especially middle schoolers, who may have to travel
some distance); many are allowed to venture a few blocks to go to the
store or library. Some might go from school to a nearby after-school
class; others might carpool with friends to a team practice. Some
parents feel more comfortable if their child can contact them with
ease. I grew up with the mantra, "Call me when you get there!" It's
much harder to find a pay phone these days, so a cell phone could be
considered a legitimate need.
Tweens who may have two "homes" —
divorced parents with joint custody or children who spend significant
time with grandparents are a couple of common examples — might benefit
from having just one contact number. And some divorced parents find it
simpler to contact their children via cell when they're in the other
Does a child "need" to chat on the phone?
Parents have debated this for generations, since the days of an
"extension" or a second phone line in an older child's room. Sometimes
eliminating fights over a single land line is worth the effort of
getting a second cell phone, and instructing a child how to use it
Use it, don't lose it
One common fear
many parents share is that Junior or Princess will lose the phone.
Certainly a lost cell means trouble — sometimes expensive trouble, if
it falls into the wrong hands. But parents would be wise to consider
how careful their child is with other important things. Do glasses,
keys, sweaters and backpacks go missing? If consistently not, then your
child probably exercises a certain amount of care with belongings, and
a phone is likely to be no exception. If consistently yes … well, you
can figure that one out. If your child really needs a phone but you
have a legitimate fear it will disappear, you'll need to take other
measures — keeping it strapped to a backpack, perhaps — and start
working on those personal responsibility issues!
is to consider a pre-paid phone — at least if it's lost, you've limited
the financial damage. Family-friendly providers include Kajeet and Firefly; many major providers also feature pre-paid plans.
Speaking of limits
need to set them. You would with a land line; don't slack off because
your own phone time isn't compromised. The easiest limits are the
strictest: call when you get to a destination, as instructed; call if
there's an emergency. (If you spell out these limits before getting the
phone, you might quash the desire to have one altogether!)
your child will want regular chatting. And ringtones. And texting. And
games. And Web browsing. It's a slippery slope. Don't take the fall:
even mature tweens can be sorely tempted by having the Web right in
their backpack or back pocket. Major plans, such as AT&T,
offer services that restrict what your tween can do on a cell phone,
such as limiting text messages, blocking numbers or filtering content.
you wouldn't allow land-line calls after a certain time, you'll need to
make your child understand that limit applies to cell phone calls too.
Be vigilant that your youngster isn't texting or talking under the
covers when she or he should be doing homework or sleeping. Make sure
that it stays in the kitchen or family room overnight when it's on
charge. Remember too, that cell phones can be a serious distraction at
school. Generally they are not allowed to be on (even on vibrate)
during school hours, and often will be confiscated if found in use.
It's up to you
all is said and done, only you can decide if your child is ready and in
need of a cell phone. There's no one answer. But one thing is certain:
when you're both ready, there will be plenty of talk — and not on the
phone — to make sure your child's phone use is a positive rite of
Terri Hunter-Davis is a veteran writer, editor and
designer in both print and online media. Her areas of expertise include
family, lifestyle and shelter topics. Terri lives in San Francisco with
her husband and increasingly tech-savvy 6- and 10-year-old daughters.