A sound you’ve been hearing for months, perhaps years now? One of them is the noise of hand wringing that all of us moms and dads are engaged in about what seems like the parenting question of the day:
When should I get my child a cell phone?
I dare you to find a parenting magazine or blog that doesn’t have a writer or editor assigned to this topic on an almost indefinite basis (see here and there for some recent ones). Morever, it’s hard to argue with the heat the issue generates, since cell phones are incredibly expensive and afford a child with the capability to do things you may have been put into a straight jacket for even suggesting just twenty years ago.
I start to have a problem, however, with all of the articles, blogposts, and pronouncements parenting ‘experts’ and your next door neighbour are offering when the message is laced with arrogance: I believe this, and I do that, so it means I’m a better parent than you. It really reminds me of the lead up to our family’s first-born.
As idealistic, alternative-minded, young parents, my wife and I succumbed easily to the philosophy of a ‘natural’ birth. This would have been fine were it not for the fact that we consumed pamphlets, books, and advice from our mid-wife more as proverbial kool-aid than objective information. We were actually duped into believing that having a natural birth made us, well, better people.
Alas, this is what parenting entails, especially when you are privileged enough to have a whole host of #FirstWorldProblems as my family does. So, since I can’t beat ‘em, I may as well join ‘em.
This post is partly out of hoping to fulfill a demand. As a parent and teacher whose family and professional lives are more intertwined than most (I teach in a school community in which I live; my own kids attend my school), and being a person (like it or not) whose image is inextricable from that of shiny gadgets (“Mr. Lee, did you invent the iPhone?”), I get asked the cell phone question a lot. It follows me like an echo through a corridor. I usually greet this question with a small dose of irritation, and a large dose of squirminess, and most of my responses begin with, “It depends…” I’m not here to tell you my answer; I don’t have one. I have, however, noticed that there are three things most parents consistently fail to consider.
1. It’s not a phone; it’s an internet-enabled mini-computer.
This past year, I tried purchasing a non-smart phone for my mother who was tired of the iPhone she was carrying around because it could simply do too much. Finding one was a herculean task. We call these mini supercomputers ‘cell phones’ much in the same way we call Count Chocula ‘breakfast’. It is a misnomer. But language is a powerful thing (see point 3 in particular).
2. The cost doesn’t end after the purchase of the hardware.
Most parents are still living in a time when getting your kid that desired item on the Christmas list is something you buy, wrap up, and present to the child: my work here is done. I’m not trying to say parents don’t understand that voice and data plans cost money, but many fail to even remind their children: “I didn’t just buy you a $500 toy for your birthday. I bought you, like, a $5000 toy.” I feel like many are missing out on a fantastic financial literacy moment here.
What’s more, especially as a teacher who invites students to bring their own devices to class, the number of times I see kids with shiny gadgets but no funds to purchase apps, music, etc. is a sight I’ve grown accustomed to. In this situation, why wouldn’t you jailbreak or find illegal means of accessing content? Don’t blame children for being the supposed generation that doesn’t want to pay for stuff. This is almost 100% an adult issue.
3. Most of what can be done on a smart phone can be done on an iPod Touch.
I feel like this is one of the perfect examples of how fast technology is moving in our time. I meet many parents who demonize the capabilities of cell phones for children, while failing to notice that they bought their kid an iPod Touch or similar device years ago. I couldn’t believe my eyes recently when I listened to a parent haughtily declare how she would “never let my child have a cell phone like so-and-so” while simultaneously seeing her boy thumb away on a 4th generation iPod Touch. For crying out loud, many adults don’t even have a smartphone that powerful! You can forgive anyone for missing this exponential development in mobile technology, but you can’t give them a pass if they’re simultaneously pompous about it.
What are your thoughts on the cell phone question?