3 Things Parents are Missing About Cell Phones #parenting

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user mtsofan
CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user mtsofan

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?



  1. “We call these mini supercomputers ‘cell phones’ much in the same way we call Count Chocula ‘breakfast’.”

    Best line I’ve read in a long, long time.

  2. I commiserate with you my friend. My 9 yr old daughter has been asking for phone for the last year. “Some of my friends have them, mom!” I just got an iphone last month for myself. My first smartphone (I’m a little behind the curve) and I see what you mean. It is a mini-computer and she is a pro on it. Nope. no phone or ipod touch for the kids for a while. I’m looking for advice on ‘when’ or ‘whether’ to allow it. I’ve always said ‘no computers or tvs in bedrooms.’ With these mini-computers in the house, we will have to find a ‘parking’ space for them before retiring to our bedrooms at night or anytime in order to follow my requirement. But, now, I’m thinking that they need to be farther away in order to stay away from them.

    We just recently acquired an ipad and have a nook tablet as well. In the last few months I’ve found that everyone in the family is on some screen all the time, and it’s so hard to make everyone put them down (including myself.) My daughter just asked if we could put them all away for 3-5 weeks when we are all at home because we are not having fun ‘together’ any more. : ( sad. It is so addictive for all of us that we need to literally keep them in a separate location if we want to wean ourselves. I think she is right. . .

    1. It’s hard to know when this massive change happened in mobile capabilities. I think the family screen time issue is a challenge for all families, including mine. The one thing I will say is that it’s important to avoid demonizing the screens in the house, especially if they are taking over. Ironically, it could make them more ‘addictive’. Also, think about finding more things to do together when screen time is happening: movies, video games, etc. Let me know how it goes!

  3. I’ll start by saying, I don’t have “kids” I have a fur child and that doesn’t count here except that he loves watching that singing poodle on youtube…ANYway, I am a high school English teacher. I own several devices myself and my husband and I are constantly on one of the screens we own. My students have smart phones for the most part and I feel like I am on top of technology in a good way. I mean that I can make references to the latest craze because for the most part I spend my time looking for this stuff during my off hours.

    The most import thing about owning a smart phone IMHO is to teach students to be critical thinkers. With the lightening speed of these devices, it is tough to take a minute and think about what you are posting, but this is important when you trust a “kid” with a device as powerful as this one. When I approach these subjects with questions I model how students should be thinking as they thumb their way in to FOREVER with their posting and social interactions. The sooner we have these conversations with our students the better then when we decide it is time to give the gift that keeps on giving we can at least think they are acting in a thoughtful way.

    In the end, I am glad I don’t have to make these choices as a parent because I have enough trouble raising a doodle. Thanks for the thought provoking post. I hope my comments are somewhat relevant. 🙂 JL

    1. Thanks for commenting. Has your fur child never asked for an iPhone? That was the topic for my next post on harrythedawg.tumblr.com!!!

      1. Hi Royan!! So your wife is Janet Lee and you have an over-the-top love for your fur child…I like you more every day! To answer your question, no, Charlee hasn’t asked for his own iphone yet but here is a list of ways he uses electronic devices: Watching that poodle sing and play piano, he watched a feed of the Thanksgiving Day parade this year…he is American afterall, he Skypes with his pilot dad and snowbird grandpa, he comes when I get a text message because it is a whistle tone, and he loves dancing to music from Itunes. Come to think of it, he might be asking for his own iphone when he rings those bells we hung by the door. Maybe I need to reassess. 😉 JL

  4. I’m that parent who gave their 8 yr old an iPhone. Her dad and I agreed on it, set ground rules, and have enforced them together. My daughter straddles 2 homes. Having direct communication with my child during the times I don’t see her helps us stay connected- through texts, send pics, videos, FaceTime, & Skype. I don’t get to ask her everyday at dinner how her day was, but I can still be in touch with her life daily. She knows Mommy is only ever a call away.
    Another benefit is that I don’t have to rely on her dad to relay messages, or wait until its convenient for him to let her use his phone. I text her messages that would just seem weird if I sent them to his phone. Having 2 homes for my daughter was not my ideal plan, but it’s a reality for many kids. Being able to communicate with my daughter freely and unmoderated has also improved the quality of relationship between her dad & I. No one likes to feel they have to go through the other parent to talk to their own child.

    Would I have given her a phone at 8 if I wasn’t divorced? Yes. I didn’t foresee the benefits mentioned, I just thought giving her a “computer” was something that she would enjoy, and something I could help teach her to use. She knows her phone is fair game for me & dad to check at any time, and there have been times we have had to explain etiquette & proper use. We were also 100% in agreement that if she could not be responsible with a phone, we would take it away and try again when she was older. The great thing is that kids can rise to our expectations, and I have seen this 1st hand.
    I know not everyone is comfortable with a child having a phone. I am. I am also comfortable with my students
    bringing phones, iPads, and other devices into my classroom. If I can trust & teach other kids how to use that technology, I certainly should be willing to do the same with my own child.

    1. LOL I love how you begin: “I’m *that* parent…”

      It’s amazing how judgemental we are as parents. I respect an empathize for your reasoning. I would do exactly the same thing.

  5. I have a very non-smart phone (it texts and phones – no photos, no ‘net) which makes my students howl, because I’m surgically attached to my iPad. But I don’t see any reason for both. My spouse is similarly equipped, though his phone is slightly smarter than mine. The 2 small boys have a pod each, getting very little use right now (except on road trips) because the house computers have Scratch, and older small boy’s (just turned 12) laptop, which he just finished paying off half of, has Minecraft. Pods are mostly used for e-mail from my travelling best friend, though smaller boy also occasionally shares fun things he’s found with friends.

    Phones for boys…older small boy is at a different school this year, so he carries a match to mine, to use for communication with us, if he’s not coming home right away. Younger small boy is at my school,

    Devices don’t have a place at meal tables, and if Dad gets a crisis call, he takes it away from the table. The boys know to clear the room if his work tone goes off, because it’s a confidentiality issue. We model all of this. There’s a screen time rule of 1 hour/kid/day, and they usually break it into 20 minute chunks. We don’t have a TV, but do download TV shows that the boys can schedule into their screen time.

    Overall, it works. I like both your reasoning, and that of your commenters. The financial literacy point Is one that needs to be stressed.

  6. Love the post, but should mention that my 11year old does NOT have a phone (yet)… For the same reasons you actually suggest!
    She is currently in Grade 5 and her school doesn’t allow phones in class, and she goes to a daycare that is one fence away from the school grounds. So she is never really in a situation where she needs a phone. And so, she uses her iTouch to text and chat and to use as a ‘mini supercomputer’, and we don’t have an expensive monthly bill for her phone.
    Next year she’ll be in Middle School, have multiple arrangements to get home, and be in situations where we would want her to have a phone. And so an iTouch will no longer suffice.
    Many of her friends (not all) have phones now and she would love one now as well… She’ll have to wait until this summer. Not a philosophical/parenting issue, just a practical/financial one, based mostly on a needs assessment… Why pay for a phone, when any time my daughter would actually need one is when she either has access to wireless, or access to a land line?

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