I remember when my children were really young I would hear stories of kids having cell phones at what seemed like crazy young ages and I instantly thought, I will never allow that. It is often easy to decide what you will and will not allow when you haven’t walk that road yet, right?
I didn’t have a cell phone until I left for college and it was hard for me to believe that the world has changed so much, so fast, that my children would really need a cell phone while they are still losing teeth.
But the truth is it has changed, more than we often realize. Pay phones have disappeared since I was kid and many landlines have gone right along with them.
We often hear of the harm of new technologies - and those concerns are very much deserving of our attention as parents. But there are benefits of technologies, such as cell phones, even for our children.
Our job as parents is to consider the harms and benefits carefully, to understand them and be wise and discerning as we lead our families. Here are some questions that can help us do just that.
1. What are your needs?
Before you start shopping for a cell phone, getting really specific on your needs. Do you need to a way to communicate with your kids when they are home alone? Do you want your child to be able to text you when they are done with practice or would like to be picked up from a friend’s house?
These questions will help you determine how smart of a phone you really need. Maybe a basic landline will be sufficient? In our home we opted for a dumb phone, one that allows calls and texts, but does not have access to the internet, social media or other apps.
2. How much is your decision affected by peers?
Our growing kids are prone to being aware of what their friends have. I am sure we were aware at their age as well. But how much are we, as parents, aware? Are we getting our child a phone because every other kid has one? Because we don’t want them to be left out? Teaching our kids that we use helpful technological tools to meet needs and solve problems, rather than keep up with the Joneses begins with us.
3. What are your fears?
Be honest here - what do you fear in regards to technology? We might fear our kids will be obsessed with their phone, spiral into technological idolatry, get involved in less than honorable texting conversations, among other things. Rather than stew in our fears, it is helpful to bring them into the light and be honest about them.
4. What are your boundaries/guardrails?
After we expose our fears we are better positioned to lay down some clear boundaries. How and when can the phone be used? Where will it be kept when not in use? When we are specific and clear about our expectations up front, it is easier for our kids to set up healthy habits from the onset.
In our home we chose not to give one child ownership of our new phone, but instead declared it the “family phone”. Our older kids can use it as needed by simply asking and it is kept in the cupboard when not in use. This of course may change when our needs change, but for now it has worked well.
5. What checks and balances can you put it place?
Boundaries and guardrails work great…as long as we are following through on them. Do you want to check call and text history (or internet usage) weekly? If so, determine that up front and set up a plan for follow through. Just as we inspect what we expect when we are teaching our kids to clean their room or do house chores, the same must hold true with new liberties such as cell phones.
6. Do you need to toss your pre-conceived notions?
If you have a rule that your child cannot have a phone until they are 12 or 10 or 16, you may be focusing less on needs and more on, well, rules. If you think all kids with cell phones no longer communicate with their parents, that is not true. If you think a cell phone will ruin your family that is probably not true either. Toss your fears and somewhat (or completely) erroneous pre-conceived ideas. Cell phones will not be the death of family life if you walk through this land wisely.
7. What examples are you setting?
This one might be painful, but we know we are our child’s first example. How do they see you prioritize technology verses relationships? How do they see you use your phone as entertainment? More is caught than taught.
8. Am I customizing?
As a mom of four I find I am always setting a precedent in our home. Every younger sibling knows when the oldest child got to begin staying up later or when the oldest girl got her ears pierced. They track these things. But as a parent I get to customize. Sometimes I follow the precedents and other times I don’t. If one child plays sports and we determine a cell phone is a good and safe way of communicating with him for practice pick up, it doesn’t mean every other child gets a phone at that age. Remember, as the parent you get to customize your parenting and aren’t beholden to your child’s idea of what is fair.
9. How can technology help us?
For all of the precautions we want (and need) to take when engaging new technologies, let’s not discount how helpful it can be as well. I am thankful that I can call my kids and let them know when I’m running 10 minutes late. It is helpful when they are away from home and their activity or event finishes up early and they can easily let me know. Technology can be helpful; let’s not ignore that fact.
10. Do I have my child’s heart?
Years ago a mentor taught me to ask this question. We have to pick our battles as parents, but this right here is where I want to win. I want to know my child enough to understand their weaknesses and strengths. This does not mean they will not make mistakes, but it makes my parenting less about the specific rules - a cell phone at 9 or 17 - and more about knowing where that child is right now. Knowing their hearts, growing their hearts and guiding their hearts makes all of the other decisions both secondary and simpler.
A smart phone is just one of many tricky decisions we get to make as parents, but we can think through it carefully, walk through it prayerfully and trust God to lead us as we lead our kids, every step of the way.
Katie Westenberg is a wife, mom and writer who is passionate about encouraging women to fear God and live brave. Her daily brave involves life in the countryside of the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their four kids. She also enjoys traveling, reading and any adventures that include friends and family. You can find her at I Choose Brave as well as Facebook and Instagram.
Originally published Friday, 16 February 2018.