Why I Gave My 9-Year-Old a Cell Phone

6 years ago
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I swore I wouldn't give my daughter Franny a cell phone until she was thirteen. And whenever my nine-year-old asked, as she had been doing more frequently, "Mom, when can I have a cell phone?" this is what I told her. There were a few reasons why I thought 13 was the magic cell phone number. She'd be responsible enough not to lose it. She'd be old enough to coordinate her own social plans. Her dad got her brother an iPhone when he was thirteen and I wanted to be fair.

blackberry maniaBut giving a cell phone to a child still residing in the single digits seemed not just premature, but actually gross. In the swanky city where I live, it is not at all unusual to spot prepubescent Paris Hilton wannabes strolling in Jackie O-size designer sunglasses, flashing an iPhone where an American Girl doll should be, chatting, or more often, texting during lunch at a pricey outdoor cafe. Whenever I spotted the parents of these tech-addicted children, they appeared perfectly content to ignore their offspring right back as they texted away on their own cell phones.

And what of the effect of habitual cell phone use on the development of social skills and friendships with real live friends? Last year, the New York Times ran a piece on kids' reliance on electronics and cited a study that found half of American teenagers send an average of 50 text messages a day. Of that number, 54% stated they are more likely to text friends than speak to them face-to face.

Experts quoted in the article raised provocative questions about how the frequent use of calling and texting affects a child's ability to learn the subtle but vital aspects of social interaction: reading facial gestures, understanding emotional nuance, developing empathy. Of course, this is a greater concern for shy or awkward kids who are unsure how to navigate the social landscape -- and may substitute texting for genuine interaction -- than it is for gregarious young people who rely on calling and texting to maintain friendships or make plans to get together in real time.

And then there's the effect on writing, grammar, forming thoughts: how will years of tapping out brief messages sans legitimate punctuation -- "were going 2 movie b4 dinner c u soon" -- impact expository writing and critical thinking skills, or even the ability to grow up and be an interesting dinner party conversationalist?

"Safety concerns" is a reason I've heard some parents give to justify buying a cell phone for a child. And for a teen out at the mall with friends, this seems legitimate. What mother wouldn't want to know that her teen has not been lured away by Jerry Sandusky but has emerged, innocence in tact, from the movie theater with his posse of pals, ready to be retrieved?

The safety reason doesn't apply to Franny, however. She is only nine, nowhere near old enough to be deposited in a public place unchaperoned. Until recently I would have told you that giving her a cell phone would do more harm than good.

That conviction crumbled a few days before Christmas when my husband, who is wary of giving kids too much electronics time, turned to me and said: "We should get Franny a cell phone." And I replied, with a resigned shoulder slump: "Okay."

Atticus and I had both grown weary of the increasingly frequent texts from my ex-husband, ostensibly to my daughter, but subtextually to me. Prince is just the teensiest bit flamboyant, so his messages to Franny were doused with multiple "I love yous!!!!!!!!" and "I can't wait to see yous!!!!!!!!" and "Love, Dad xxxxxxxooooooos." Upon receiving one of these texts, Franny would grab my phone and off the two of them would go on a protracted text exchange that would end only when I announced, "it's time for dinner" or "I need my phone back."

I have never texted a personal message to Franny on her dad's cell phone. If I need to talk to her, I'll call her dad or text him to have her call me. To me, texting Franny on her dad's phone to tell her how much I love her or to tantalize her with all the fun things we're going to do when I see her feels show-offy. Plus, texting her when she's with her dad seems intrusive. The two of them deserve their time together, uninterrupted by me.

This is not the way my ex thinks. I had begun to resent being the communique liaison, not to mention feeling squeamish being put in the position of cyber-eavesdropping. But I still wanted to support my daughter's relationship with her father, who sees her less than I do. So I let the texting between them continue.

Until last week when the texts took a turn for the blatantly inappropriate. My ex is a competitive fellow and anything and everyone associated with him is "the best." Especially his new wife. I don't know Sarah well, but from what I can tell she genuinely seems to love my kids and they are attached to her. For that, I'm happy.

But I'm not happy about my ex's insinuations that Sarah is the Best Mother Ever. I don't think that message serves my kids well. And texting this not-so thinly-veiled sentiment to my phone, where my ex knows I will undoubtedly read it, smacks of passive-aggressiveness.

An example: a couple weeks ago, my ex and his new wife were vacationing in Mexico. The following text appeared on my phone, under a photo of the two of them on a boat, proudly displaying a large pompano: "Look at the huuuuuge fish Sarah caught!!"

The metaphor was not lost on me. Enough was enough! It was time to set some boundaries around my ex's communication with my daughter, which meant getting me and my cell phone out of the middle.

Atticus made a beeline for Best Buy and returned with a Samsung cell phone. When he converted our individual plans to a family plan, the Samsung Flight had been thrown in for free. We disabled the internet option -- we did not want Franny being able to surf YouTube or be tempted to send photos to anyone and everyone that she might later regret. We gave her the bare necessities, what the cell phone is meant for her to do: call and text.

Franny was beside herself when she unwrapped her cell phone Christmas morning. She left for a ski vacation with her dad's family the next day and I have to admit I love getting her updates, as delightfully mundane, misspelled, and grammatically incorrect as they are:

"Were going on a bus to the airport"

"I'll call when were bording"

"Hi were at the house"

"Well its getting late call u Tuesday"

U You get the drift.

After just a couple days of exchanging texts with my daughter, I experienced this unexpected side effect: I started to understand my ex's compulsion to text Franny on my phone. I don't think it was just to send me passive-aggressive barbs. I think he may have genuinely felt adrift with her out of his sight, wondering what she was doing, if she was okay.

Because that's the way I felt yesterday when her text to me -- "I just went on a huge roller," followed by my question, "what kind of roller?" went unanswered. Until this morning, when she wrote back, "it's a jump," and I could dismiss images of her in a full-body cast.

I feel resolved about giving Franny her own phone. She is one of those just-add-water kids, a kid who willingly does her chores and her homework with little prodding, a sociable kid who would much rather have a playdate in real time than in cyberspace. If she starts to abuse her cell phone privilege, say, texting for long stretches or during meals, I'll have to limit her phone time or take it away altogether.

But for now, I believe that giving this particular nine-year-old her own cell phone was the right choice.

What do u think? Wud u give ur kid a cell phone? What age is 2 young?


Photo Credit: evelynishere.

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