It was the Spring of 2006 and I was driving into town when I stumbled upon a swarm of teens blanketing the sidewalks. "Was someone giving out free tickets to a Green Day concert or perhaps Kelly Clarkson?" I asked myself. No. What I was witnessing was a “coming of age” ritual among New Canaan middle schoolers; the Friday march to town.
These days there's another transitional event that marks our children's passage to a new level of independence. And it's inspired a whole new level of debate among parents: “When is the right time to get my child a cell phone?”
Many of our youngsters have just mastered turning off lights and flushing toilets, so this is not a decision to be taken lightly. There is quite a bit of responsibility packed into that fully accessorized electronic piece of plastic.
Every child is different as is every family value system. I knew there wasn’t a hard and fast answer to this question, hence, I set out to find someone who can offer some perspective to this query.
Greg Macedo, the principal at Saxe Middle School, thinks that it’s important for parents to distinguish whether the phone is used as a tool or toy. He knows for some it’s a status symbol.
“You can’t rush development, and the phone and the capacity of the phone might supersede the child’s ability to handle it," he said.
Parents often ask him about cell phones and he stresses that it has to be a family decision.
“We’re not going to say at this grade it’s okay and this grade it’s not," he said. "I think we try to share some logic that for the majority of kids, 7th and 8th grade are the years that parents need to create some controlled independence, and 5th and 6th grades are still the years that parents don’t need to feel guilty about holding onto supervision”
Making Your Decision
If you can get beyond the desperate pleas and the keeping up with the Joneses, you might want to contemplate why your child needs a phone.
- Safety: Organized sports have put our kids out of yelling distance from our homes. The phone is a useful tool to communicate with them.
- Ease: Decisions can be made on the fly when kids are always in touch. But be careful of the double edged sword; the constant changes to the game plan will leave your head spinning.
- Social: Cell phones are the Number One form of communication among teens. Don’t be surprised when your teenager can only dribble out sentences in 160 character bites.
Are You Ready and Are They Ready?
You’ve established that it’s time to go mobile. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- Does our child understand how to text appropriately?
- Does the phone have internet access and how can I control that?
- Does our child know when and where it’s appropriate to use their phone?
- Do they understand and that what they write or send over the phone is open to anyone?
When we were kids our verbal indiscretions thankfully vaporized into thin air. When we give our children cell phones those written and visual lapses will now become permanent records for the whole world to scrutinize. That’s a tough reality for anyone, let alone an adolescent.
What Works for You
You can listen to all the advice in the world, but when it comes right down to it, you have to do what works best for your family. My brood walks to and from school as well as sports. It gives me peace of mind when I know they’ve reached their destination safely. Their phones have no internet access. It took me almost three months to get those parental control settings right on their home computers. They’d yell, “Mom, the computer won’t let me look up penguins.” I would silently curse at my pesky internet guardian, “Penguins are not porn!” The thought of locking down a bunch of cell phones would send me into a technological tear-filled meltdown.
My kids think I’m crazy when I ask them to avoid walking and dialing or texting, but unfortunately I learned this lesson the hard way after walking into a woman while glancing at my phone. Crossing a street safely requires focus, and a distracted child stepping off a curb into traffic could be disastrous.
And, in my final stance against too much technology, a plastic bin sits on my kitchen counter which serves as a welcome home depository of all mobile devices. In our familial bedlam, we do not need any more distractions.
Whatever rite of passage your family is about to cross, prepare your child with thoughtful discussion and information. If you think they are independent and responsible enough, then let them walk to town. Let them own a cell phone.
Mastering both at the same time, now that's a different story.