(Originally published April 14, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
I realize for many, the question is usually, “What is the right age to give your child a cell phone?”
Well, in my house, that question had been easy. With the confidence of an all-knowing parent who’d never had a preteen much less a teen, I adamantly stated my case to the women in my book club a few years ago.
“Kids with cell phones are ridiculous,” I asserted. “Mine will get it when he needs it – the same time he gets his driver’s license.”
Well, imagine my surprise when I found myself in the AT&T store adding that extra phone line, making ours an official family plan as he was turning 12.
He was midway through his sixth grade year and still settling in to the ups and downs of junior high. He had risen to the challenge of wearing the jacket and tie that sets middle schoolers apart from the “little kids” at his school. He gladly schlepped hockey pads, squash bags and lacrosse sticks to school everyday – another signal to his immediate world that he had graduated from the elementary years.
But, despite the heavy baggage of those exterior signs of maturity, what he most wanted to symbolize that he was an independent middle schooler weighed a scant 3.4 ounces. The cell phone.
Like in many homes where adolescence blooms, “the cell phone conversation” was a weekly occurrence. He would insist that he was the only one without a phone. When this argument took him nowhere, he reasoned that I could always find him if he had a phone. I reasoned back that if I didn’t already know where my 11-year-old was, then we had bigger problems than cell phones.
I described our familiar patter to a friend, a father of two other middle school boys, “He’s acting like by not letting him have a cell phone, I’m completely emasculating him.”
“You are,” the friend replied simply.
So, living by the mantra “pick your battles,” I decided that $10 a month was a small price to pay for middle school acceptance. Obviously, I was not factoring in insurance, texting, taxes and a phone that was more than a tin can with a string.
With that, my son became just one more of the 20 million teens bouncing their cell phone signals off towers and satellites across the American landscape. He couldn’t have been happier standing with his peers texting after school – likely to the boy standing right next to him. On days I picked him up, he was apt to call and say, “Oh, I see your car, I’ll walk right over.”
How had we managed without this technology for so long?
Studies show that more than 70% of teens now own cell phones, up from five years ago when just 40% of kids aged 8-18 owned cell phones. And even that number is a drastic jump compared with pre- September 11 percentages.
Before 9-11 most schools banned cell phones on campus. “But after 9-11 and the Columbine shootings, parents wanted to be able to reach their kids all the time,” explained the head of my son’s middle school. “And now the cell phone is not going away, so we have to learn how we can use it to benefit us.”
For your benefit, here are just a few lessons learned in our year-plus with the gadget:
If your phone is in your sweatshirt on the floor of the locker room, chances are high that a skate blade will find it, thus requiring a replacement. This is not recommended.
If you give your phone to a group of girls because they want to “program” it for you, it is entirely possible that the speaker will cease to work, thus requiring a replacement. This is not recommended.
If you are sitting in the kitchen with your mother when her phone rings and it is your cell number that comes up, it is best to fess up that indeed you have no idea where your phone is.
If you are sitting in the car with your mother when her phone rings and it is your cell number that comes up, it is best to fess up that indeed you have no idea where your phone is.
If you decide to prevent further incidents of losing or damaging your phone and begin leaving it safely in your backpack, hockey bag, lacrosse bag, or on the kitchen counter, it becomes increasingly difficult – nearly impossible – to hear or feel your phone when your mother is calling you. This is not recommended.
If it is your father, who ostensibly pays for your phone, calling when said communication device is stowed safely out of useful range, this is really not recommended.
In just over a year, the cell phone and its tempting trappings of responsibility and independence had become a burden.
Once again, Slim and I found ourselves having “the cell phone conversation.” And he was the one who captured the situation best, “He can always say had a phone. He lost it and now his parents have taken it away. That’s a credible narrative.”
Indeed, it was not a week later when the familiar chirp of his phone alerted my son that one of his people had messaged that most expressive mot, “ ‘sup?” My youngest moaned with envy, “I can’t wait until I can get a cell phone.”
“Trust me, you don’t need a cell phone,” said his big brother. “I don’t even need a cell phone.” And rather than try to reel his words back in or backtrack on his logic when our eyes met, he accepted and owned the truth of his statement.
He found me later and laid his cell phone on the kitchen counter, just like Charlie Bucket returning the Everlasting Gobstopper to Willy Wonka. The evils of temptation, Slugworth and sexting had been denied in one fell swoop.
“I just think I’ll be able to relax so much more if I don’t always have to carry it with me and worry about it all the time,” he explained. “Could you just turn it off for a few months and then we’ll try it again when I really need it?”
I’d love to say that the story ended there, we each learned our lesson and went out for ice cream. But instead, we learned another lesson called “early termination fee.” So, we’ll be leaving the phone on, handing our ice cream money over to AT&T and using the gadget as a “special occasion” phone.