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When Is It Time for a Child’s First Phone?

When Is It Time for a Child’s First Phone?

Childhood’s exit is a thousand tiny deaths.

For example, it gets steadily harder to generate a truly quizzical look on your child’s face. I got one of the best ones ever when Nathan was 9 or so.

Nathan (hopefully): “Dad, how old were you when you got your first cell phone?”

Bo (casually): “Oh, about 23, I think.”

I can remember his expression exactly and wish I had a photograph of it. Of course, Nate was expecting an answer based on when my dad allowed me to have one. I gave him an answer based on when the technology was mature enough for me to afford it.

My first phone was an NEC, and a robust piece of equipment indeed. About three-quarters the size and weight of a brick, It didn’t even have an alphanumeric display. So it would do the best it could with its seven-segment display (i.e, ): charging

How far have we come? Well, let’s consider that, shall we?

Is there a more profound manifestation of technology’s march than that small box you probably have tucked into your pocket or purse? If you have an iPhone, or a Galaxy, or a Lumia, then you carry something the size of a deck of cards with capabilities unthinkable in a state-of-the-art desktop computer not so long ago.

That blows my mind. Pause for just a moment with me and allow it to blow yours.

So a couple of years after the above exchange—as in, when his peers began acquiring phones of their own in significant numbers—Nathan started the full court press. My friends have phones, Dad. When am I getting one?

I deflected this noncommittally as long as I could, but I finally had to draw a line. This is what I said:

“Nathan, right now I know where you are, plus or minus 50 yards, every second of your life. Until that is no longer true, you don’t need a cell phone.”

Just a few days ago, it became no longer true. He went on an overnight school field trip to Birmingham. Lea and I discussed it a week earlier, and we agreed that he should have a telephone with him.

I purchased a pay-as-you-go flip phone for $15. This phone belongs to me, to be issued to one boy or the other when circumstances dictate that he needs one.

(This phone is so basic, but wow, $15? Remember when a color screen on anything was $200+?)

phone final.jpg

When Nate learned I was out getting a phone for him to take on his trip, his imagination went into high gear. Despite neither Lea nor I ever saying anything to stoke such, he had built expectations of a huge-screened, glittering smartphone, which were of course dashed when he saw it. (I felt a bit bad for him, actually. That his disappointment was unreasonably generated didn’t mean it wasn’t real.)

So it’s $2/day for unlimited nationwide talk and text, but I’m only charged if the phone’s used. It won’t be tomorrow, for example, so there’ll be no expense. Data is a penny a kilobyte. Obviously this billing structure is worlds from a typical smartphone plan.

On that note, we’ve decided that Nathan will indeed have his own phone when the new school year begins this fall. It is likely to be a middle-of-the-road smartphone. I have made it clear to him that while Mom and Dad will take care of basic charges, he will contribute to anything over and above, and that includes any significant data plan.

I haven’t worked any of those details out. I have a few months to gather input, and I’d like to start with you, dear Rocket City Mom readers.

When it comes to children and cell phones, there are a lot of possible paths, and it’s hard to know what to do. How have you handled the issue at your house? Any lessons learned to share? Leave me a comment and share your wisdom.


View Comments (8)
  • If only I had wisdom to share. I’ve watched my sister navigate this path with her children who are now 13 and 16. I believe a phone was first purchased at the age of 11 but I don’t think smartphones are even yet in the picture. They are both able to reach the Internet with their iPods and the phones are strictly for emergency purposes. I believe as long as they use available Wi-Fi at home and publicly available it cuts back on costs normally associated with data plans. Seems reasonable to me.

    • He’ll be watching for Wi-Fi like a beast when he figures out how much cellular data costs! 🙂 Thanks for your input, Jen.

  • We had to break down and get our 7th grader a phone at the beginning of the school year. There are several examples online of “contracts” between parents and children regarding phone usage. We modified one of those to meet our needs. We also have a central charging location where everything stays at night so we don’t worry about what is going on after bedtime.

    • Wendy, the central charging location is a fabulous idea. We’ll adopt that! I’ll also look for a contract and get that in the equation as well. Thanks for your feedback.

  • I have an almost ten yr old daughter that tries to ell me “everyone in her class already has a smartphone. ..I don’t believe her and she’s not getting one anytime soon…maybe at 13…I don’t know, I just know that it opens up a whole new area to be concerned about, texting and all the issues that come with that. I always thought we would be the cool hip parents, but I’m finding more and more I am leaning towards the way more conservative side..therr will be time a plenty at 15, 16 and older for them to hide things from us so I just feel like why start that any earlier than I absolutely have to?

    • Kim, I understand. There’s a lot of stuff I was going to be cool on that I’ve yanked back the other way now, for sure. I think it’s called wisdom. 🙂

  • I have a 17, 16, 14 & 12 year old. They do not have a cellphone of any kind. As a matter of fact I don’t have one myself. My husband only has one because his work provides it (just a basic cellphone).

    If any of my kids have ever needed to let me know that the bus is nearly back at school (from their sports game) so I can come pick them up or they are on an overnight school field trip and I want them to call to let me know they arrived safely – they have always used one of their friends phones just to place a quick call. If they need to contact me from school they use the school’s landline. I also always get the adults (coaches/chaperones/teachers who will be on the field trip) contact cell numbers. This system has always worked for us plus I don’t have to worry about who or what my child(ren) are texting or trying to hide from us.

    They are free to get their own phone when they themselves can buy it & pay the bill with their own money.

    • Kerri, I think my natural inclination is close to yours.

      The hardware is appearing with him having significant financial interest in it, and with extremely liberal auditing. We’ll see how that goes.

      (Kid hasn’t made a B yet. We’ll be watching that too.)

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