“Call me when you get there and call me when you’re on your way home,” my mother used to tell me when I’d hop on my bike and ride to a friend’s house up the street. Friends coming over would do the same, picking up the curly corded handset from our wall phone to let their parents know they’d safely arrived. Our kids are growing up at a different time when we did. Landlines are disappearing but the ability to communicate with them is still so important and while smartphones make it easier than ever for us to stay in touch, what’s the right age for a cell phone? And how do you know your child is ready for a smartphone?
I’ve been asked these questions numerous over the years, but the honest truth is that it’s different for every family. Within every family, it can vary from child to child but the decision is yours because you know your child best and ultimately, you’re the one footing the bill.
Ignore your teen or tween’s pleas that they’re the only one without a phone (trust me, they’re not) and all their friends have one (they don’t). Don’t believe them when they tell you they’ll be careful and won’t burn their data watching YouTube videos on the bus/posting to Instagram Stories/Snapchatting (they will) and will limit their texts. They may limit their personal texting but those group chats? They can implode the allotted texts per month in a heartbeat! None of these reasons are good enough for you to cave and get them a smartphone until you believe there’s a need for them to have one AND they’re ready for the responsibility. (Note: “AND” is capitalized for a reason!)
There are behaviors that kids should exhibit, conversations that should be had, and lots of learning that you’ll go through together when your child becomes a smartphone owner. Even though I’ve found smartphones and social media to be positive ways to communicate with my tween or teen, there’s no reason to give in to pressure to keep up with the Joneses of the playground set but there’s also no way to know your child is 100% ready for the responsibility either. Read this and decide if you’re ready to take the leap!
4 Ways to Know Your Child is Ready for a Smartphone
They Ask for One
I’ll just start by saying that just because your child asks, doesn’t mean they’re ready for a smartphone but the ability to ask and risk your saying no, is a great conversation starter for an honest discussion to understand why.
I’ll never forget the time when Emily was 5 and she casually asked me if she could have a phone. It was similar to the time when she asked if she could have a beer at age 9. Her reasoning for both? “Just to see what you’d say.” Eyeroll
Sometimes kids test us to see what our response might be but there are times when- in their minds- they have good reasons why you should say yes. Before you shoot them down, listen to them.
Having a conversation about the reasons why is an important first step in the communication process. Discern whether they want a phone for safety or social reasons and even though they may be pretty convincing when justifying their reasons, assure them you’ll take their factors into consideration as you think about when it might be right to shop for their first phone.
Once you put a smartphone in your child’s hands, many conversations should follow. Create a contract to set expectations but also know that you’ll need to stay current on digital safety topics and social media tools, model healthy relationships with devices, and continue conversations about digital safety because technology changes.
“We’ve had conversations about digital safety every since she learned how to navigate a mouse,” said Thien-Kim Lam, Founder of Bawdy Bookworms and ImNotTheNanny.com. Her daughter received her first phone at age 8 because of a 45 minute bus ride commute to school and now that she’s in middle school, Thien-Kim shared, “The conversations are ongoing as technology changes. Four years later, she has yet to lose or break her phone and we have regular check-ins about how she uses her phone. I’m instilling my kids with the knowledge to make good decisions about their digital footprint.”
Pro tip: Make no promises about buying them a phone when they’re a certain age, if they get all As next quarter, etc. These milestones may come and you might feel that they’re still not be ready so be sure to give yourself an out otherwise you know they will hold you to your word!
They Demonstrate Responsibility in a Variety of Settings
Demonstrating responsibility is one way to know if your child is ready for a smartphone but responsibility looks different at every age and stage. Does your child:
- Take great care of their belongings?
- Keep track of their water bottles, jackets, lunch boxes, school and library books, and the myriad of other things you expect them to bring home? Or do they leave a trail of items in their wake or in the school Lost & Found that you visit to retrieve them regularly?
- Pitch in to help with the family pet or household tasks on a regular basis with or without being asked?
- Answer your home phone quickly and politely?
- Communicate with you about where they’re going via paper and pencil?
These behaviors are hallmarks of responsibility and the model behavior you expect them to exhibit but if we waited until our kids did each of the above, some might not even be ready as adults!
A better strategy is to think about responsibility in an age appropriate way and give them tasks that are right for their age and stage like Michele McGraw from Scraps of My Geek Life did.
“I wasn’t completely sure they were ready,” Michele told me, recalling when she put smartphones in the hands of each of her 4 kids, “but you can’t be responsible unless given a responsibility. We dished out responsibility in small pieces, age appropriately. Along the way as we gave them more responsibility, we talked about how to handle that and the dangers, etc. They made mistakes along the way, but we used them as teachable moments. Now they are older, they are good about self-monitoring and taking care of their devices.”
Being ready for a smartphone device means being responsible and not losing it, keeping it charged, responding to your texts and calls promptly, and demonstrating appropriate interactions with friends via text and on social platforms. It seems like a lot but not anything you can’t work towards when you put a phone in the hands of your child for the first time.
Pro tip: If you think they could be ready for a phone, start increasing responsibilities to see how well they handle the additional tasks. Make sure that they demonstrate responsibility in a number of different ways. You want them to be responsible when they’re home but also at school, at friend’s houses, and in regards to their extra-curricular activities.
They’ve Done Some Research About Smartphones
We know that the cost of a smartphone is more than just the device but savvy tweens and teens who want to plead their case for a phone of their own will have also done their research. They will know that the cost of a phone is more than just the sticker price of the device itself and also includes a monthly service plan and the possibility of being locked into a contract where they can’t upgrade to the latest and greatest phone at their whim
Pro tip: If they’ve done their research about the device, contract, and monthly service plan, make sure they also consider the costs of accessories. Those fancy cases, Bluetooth headphones and PopSockets cost money!
They Offer to Pay for Part of the Phone Costs
With no fixed expenses, our teens and tweens have disposable income thanks to generous relatives, babysitting gigs, shoveling snow, and other ventures that helps put money in their pockets. Ellen Lafleche-Christian (Confessions of an Over-Worked Mom) said she knew her kids were ready for smartphones when they could pay for them. “Not that I ever charged them,” she said. “But that was the idea!”
Knowing the true costs, a true sign of maturity would be determining a payment system that contributes to the costs associated with owning a smartphone.
“She pays $10/month of service with money usually earned from babysitting,” Brett Martin from This Mama Loves told me about her daughter who got her smartphone at age 12. “She’s not been short on cash yet but if she was, she’d do extra stuff around the house to earn the $10.”
Pro tip: Now is the time to do your homework and figure out the cost of adding a phone to your line. While cell phone carriers may entice you with offers of free phones, plans and features differ dramatically. Ensure that the expense of adding a mobile phone to your family’s mobile plan fits into your household budget and be honest with your kid about what you can and can’t afford because it’s not a small cost! Let them know how long it would take them to pay for the device itself along with the monthly service using their allowance, money earned from household chores, or given as birthday or holiday gifts.
We hear the gloom and doom about kids and phones but they can be positive tools for communication that can strengthen family bonds if you’re ready to take the leap and work through the responsibility of smartphone ownership together!
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