I feel like this post could morph into a full blown book – there’s just so many areas to delve into on this topic, but I’ll do my best to boil down the salient points into a reasonable read time!
If it wasn’t clear by the title, I fall firmly under the camp that under no circumstances should you ever fork out the money to buy your kid a cell phone, let alone pay the bills for said phone. (Ok – I’ll relent slightly, almost NO circumstances, I generally don’t use words like never and always because often enough there is an exception to the rule.)
Frankly, judging by the number of kids I see carrying cell phones around my son’s elementary school (and I’m talking K-Grade 5 kind of elementary) I fall squarely in the minority on this one.
BUT – I don’t believe this is because parents vehemently believe that their kid should absolutely have a cell phone. Rather, like most things in life, I think the cell phone era has simply evolved to the point where a lot of parents don’t really give it much thought at all. It’s become a given, rather than the exception.
I strongly believe that adopting this line of thinking (intentional or not) is a HUGE mistake, and if you commit the next 7 minutes of your time to reading this post – hopefully I can convince you that this is a topic well worth some extended thought, consideration, and substantial communication with your child.
What I won’t talk about in this post is at what age your child is mature enough to take on the responsibility of a cell phone, should they wish to get a job in order to pay for one.
For some children, that age might be 12, for others, it may be 25. Every child is different, every child’s life circumstances and maturity is unique, and the appropriate age for you to allow them to acquire a cell phone is a decision that only you as a parent can make.
Now, I know what the biggest, most prevalent, and seemingly easiest method of justifying your kid having a cell phone is. And I can hear many of you saying it now.
“But Phia – it’s about safety. What if my kid has an emergency, or we have an emergency and need to reach them”.
Nice try, but that is a lame rationale. For starters, there weren’t just millions, but BILLIONS of other kids who survived childhood just fine without a cell phone.
Second, please tell me – where on earth might your child be encountering said “emergency” where they won’t have access to a phone if they themselves don’t possess a cell phone? Let’s break it down.
Where does your kid spend the majority of their day. School. Pretty sure they have phones there. And adults who are allegedly supervising them, and also have access to phones.
Turns out you can also call the school and reach your child by using those same phones. Ask your parents about it – they are familiar with this process.
Kids also spend a lot of time at home, but perhaps some of that time is when an adult isn’t home. Pretty sure you could just get a cheap landline phone (we just did – for this exact reason). That way if your child is home alone, they can call 911 (or you) if they need too, and vice versa.
Ok, so maybe they are at the age where they go out with friends? Did you not go out with friends without a cell phone attached to you at all times? Is it that unlikely that there will be a phone that can be accessed in the event of a real emergency? At the movies, at the corner store, at their friends homes, flagging down a passing driver. There are phones EVERYWHERE!
But what about if you want to be able to reach your child at any given moment of the day? Ok – that is not a child safety issue, that is a you issue. Your gonna need to work that one out.
If you feel uncomfortable with not having a direct line of communication to your child at all times, and don’t trust that they have the maturity to make responsible decisions, or come home at the agreed upon time, then maybe they shouldn’t be “going out” in the first place.
And if you are really ultra concerned about it – tell your kid to get a job and save up the money to have a cell phone, because they can’t go out with their friends until they have one. Now there’s a motivator!
Ok – if we are done with the “safety” objections, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of why I think this is so important. (If you have an objection I haven’t addressed, leave me a comment, I will respond – I promise!)
Fostering A Sense Of Entitlement
There is no better way to ensure your child has zero appreciation for the luxury of having a cell phone (or any other big ticket want), then you buying it for them and paying the bill.
And just incase there are ANY misconceptions out there – much like owning a car, or designer clothing, or the latest fad toy, a cell phone falls squarely under the WANT category – not a need.
Just last week I found myself at the centre of a Twitter debate that I accidentally set off by essentially suggesting that if a parents financial circumstances are such that they are faced with the choice between having a smart phone or feeding their children, it is absolutely irresponsible to choose the smart phone.
Initially, I thought I was being Captain Obvious. I don’t know what strange corner of the twitter-universe I had stumbled into – but I was suddenly fending off 20 something millennials who were ferociously defending their absolute right and entitlement to not just have a cell phone, but specifically a smart phone regardless of their (or anyone else’s) financial circumstances. Several took it so far as to say that a smart phone is no longer a want – but a necessity.
Parents – I beg of you, we cannot foster this kind of thinking. This is exactly how kids develop entitlement complexes that result in major money management issues, and loads of consumer debt.
In the short term – it’s also the mindset that will end in them running up massive phone/data bills without a seconds thought.
Bottom line – if your kid wants a cell phone, and you think they are ready for it, great.
Let them go get a job, save up for the cell phone, and pay for the monthly bill. If they can do all of those things – maybe they are ready for it.
The World of Social Media
Here’s the second reason not to buy your kid a cell phone – but arguably these two points could be considered 1A and 1B in importance.
If they don’t have the maturity to hold down even a basic job – they definitely don’t have the maturity to deal with the responsibility of a smart phone and all that it brings.
And to be clear – none of the kids I see with cell phones are carrying old school flip phones, possessed solely for the sake of “calling their parents in an emergency”. NONE – not a single one. They are all carrying some version of a smart phone.
With a smart phone comes access to the world wide web – and as tech savvy a parent as you may be, there is simply no way to protect your kids against everything that comes with having access to all that is online.
Particularly if it is unsupervised access.
Whether it’s online bullying, exposure to inappropriate content, child luring, addiction to video games, or the incredibly long list of undesirable results from having an online presence at an age when you are still developing your base line understanding of the world, a cell phone provides infinite opportunities to make very bad life choices in very public ways.
Choices that could haunt your child for many, many years.
While we can’t insulate our kids from the online world entirely, we can be mindful of how early we allow this exposure to occur, and also offer a graduated entry to the online world.
There is nothing wrong with our kids learning to use social media and online tools on a desktop computer that is located in a high traffic area of the family home, where at any given time Mom or Dad, or Sibling X might just glance over and see everything they are looking at.
A cell phone is an invitation for your kids to go online in their rooms – and in my old job, I saw time and time again heartbreaking stories that all started with parents allowing their kids too much access, at far to early of an age.
Many of these parents truly believed that they had been adequately “monitoring” their kids online activity. Suffice to say – they had not.
Here’s a good rule to follow (from years of trying to help families cope with the damage caused): If you can’t see the screen – you don’t know what they are doing.
I can’t stress enough that kids DO NOT have the cognitive ability or life skills to fully process the implications of their decisions, particularly in the context of an online environment and all the influences it brings, without your consistent guidance and oversight.
You want to be able to trust your kids to make the right decisions, but we can’t forget that it’s our job to equip them with the necessary skills, and that doesn’t happen overnight. This is not the area of life to apply a sink or swim model of instruction.
I’ll repeat myself here – but it’s worth repeating. If your child does not have the maturity to hold down a job in order to facilitate the purchase of a cell phone, and payment of the monthly bills, then they absolutely DO NOT have the maturity to handle the responsibilities and decisions that come with owning a device that permits an extensive amount of unsupervised online access.
Missing The Opportunity To Build Financial Skills
The third reason not to buy your child a cell phone (or pay their bills) is that you will be robbing them of a HUGE opportunity to build a number of key money management skills.
When your child is ready to take the leap into the world of buying a cell phone, it’s almost an unparalleled opportunity to teach them some invaluable lessons in finance.
Most kids will be SUPER motivated to get their phone, which translates to a higher than average incentive for them to actually listen to the lessons you are trying to impress upon them!
Think about the process of buying a cell phone for yourself. You would probably start by identifying your desired budget, and your communications needs.
You would then likely look at what’s available when it comes to devices, comparing brands and features. Then once you had decided on the best device for your needs, you would look at various service providers to check out monthly rates, promotions etc.
You would have an understanding that deals on the devices are often hidden as higher monthly rates and vice versa, and would therefore ensure you were comparing apples to apples when assessing your options.
All of that knowledge and product research is you exercising your consumer savvy muscles.
So why not walk you child through the process? Work with them to set a reasonable budget that works within their income bracket.
Show them how to evaluate what they really need in a cell phone. (Not just by picking the model all their friends have) but doing their research and communicating to YOU what they think they need and why.
If they really want the latest and greatest, and they’ve worked hard and saved up the money, they should at the very least be able to tell you the features that particular phone has that will be important to them.
If they can’t, then they are likely just following the crowd, and that’s a whole other jumping off point for some heart to heart discussions.
Once they have identified their ideal device, walk them through how to research a provider. How to break down the real costs of the device vs. the plan, and evaluate the benefits and disadvantages of a pre-paid versus a phone plan.
Show them how to calculate the total monthly cost of their desired plan after taxes and service fee’s etc. Does it work with their set budget? Have them identify exactly how much of their income percentage will be going towards paying that monthly bill.
Once they have done all their research and found the right device/plan that not only works with their budget, but both they and you feel comfortable with, only then is it time to actually go to the store with them and make the purchase.
But the money management lessons don’t stop there. For many kids, the right starting point may be a pre-paid phone. That way they don’t have the ability to go over what they’ve already paid for, and you won’t find yourself in a situation where your kid has racked up a multi-hundred dollar phone bill that they don’t have the ability to cover.
A pre-paid plan also allows for the instant cancellation of the plan without substantial fee’s in the event your child doesn’t live up to their end of the cell phone agreement.
If the decision is to go with a pre-paid plan, continue to talk to them about their monthly usage on an ongoing basis.
Are they running out of minutes/data half way through the month? What can they do to improve their efficiency? Are they using their device in a way that maximizes free communication time frames, or are they running apps that are continuously using data.
If you’ve agreed to sign a contract plan on their behalf (minor’s cannot sign phone contracts), or it’s more cost effective to add them under a family plan, then every month make-sure you have a set time to sit down and go through their portion of the phone bill with them.
See if there are any overages or area’s of concern and talk about it. Give them guidance on how to manage their data, talk time etc to avoid those types of additional costs.
Show them how to pay their portion of the bill online. And definitely, definitely, make them pay for any overages they incur.
Nothing drives the lesson home and changes behaviours like parting with your own hard earned cash to cover off using too much data.
All in – showing them how to make the necessary budgeting calculations, do the market research, and modeling the standard of how to approach purchases (particularly recurring bills) will set them up to not only value the ability to have a phone, but it will build a foundation for them to make well-informed and intentional financial decisions in the future.
- Get swayed by the idea that your child “needs” a phone, it couldn’t be further from the truth;
- Foster a sense of entitlement in your children by treating “wants” like “needs”;
- Put more responsibility on your child than they can handle by allowing cell phone access too early.
- Foster a sense of work ethic and appreciation in your kids by having them work for their “wants”;
- Give your child the chance to mature a little bit more before taking on the responsibility of having a phone.
- Give your child the opportunity to build sound financial skills by paying for their own phone, and their own bills.
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In next weeks post I’ll break down the cost per use on our home gym, and reveal whether or not it was worth the upfront investment.