Am I Crazy to Give My Tween a Cell Phone?

Parents delight in the smiles on the faces of the children when a longed-for gift is unwrapped. But in the long run, we want the gifts we give our children to add to their lives, rather than remove something from them.
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We have finally decided to give my old iPhone to our 11-year-old for Christmas, and I'm already concerned that this may end up being a big mistake. Quite a few of his classmates have a cell phone and he has been begging for one. I want to make him happy but I am worried that it may cause endless arguments. Am I crazy for giving him an iPhone?

As we move into the holiday season, I have been frequently asked this question. More and more children (at increasingly younger ages) are longing to be equipped with the latest devices, particularly because so many of their friends are. Here are my thoughts:

• Think for yourself. I believe it is a mistake to give a child as young as 11 years old a cell phone. He has decades of digital life ahead of him; childhood is brief enough as it is, and seeing little kids plugged in to a device rather than playing in the real world is a sad sight. That said, every parent needs to find what feels right to them. The fact that your son's friends have an iPhone is not a reason to give him one. You, however, may believe it would make life easier if he were reachable when he is away from home, or you may simply believe it to be a good idea to equip with a portable entertainment center. Think for yourself about what is best for your son and your family, and base your decision on that.

• Create conditions. If the deal is done and you have already given the phone to your son, you can still add very clear conditions. Last year, the Huffington Post printed a wonderful contract written by Janell Burley Hoffman.You may want to use this as a template for creating an agreement with your 11-year-old. Conditions included handing in the phone each night (without debate) at 7:30, making sure his parents always had the password and my favorite, "Wonder without Googling" -- an admonition to stay engaged with his curiosity rather than googling every question that crosses his mind.

• Be fearless. This is one of the phrases I use most often when consulting with parents around their child's use of digital media. It is entirely unreasonable to expect a child (let alone an adult) to easily and voluntarily turn off a device that is providing so much stimulation and entertainment. Be fully prepared for your child to get angry, slam doors or hate you if and when he breaks agreements and you have to take away the phone for any period of time.

• Refer to it as your phone, not his. While we generally transfer ownership of a present to its recipient, I urge you to describe this particular gift as something that is yours that you are letting your son use, provided he maintains the conditions you have created.

• You have permission to change your mind. As our kids approach the age where they can get their driver's license, we tell them that driving is a privilege rather than a right. The same can be said for owning a cell phone. If your son cannot turn off the phone when it's time to do homework or go to bed without an argument, he simply may not be ready to "drive it." We have been trained to believe that it's bad form to take back a gift once it has been given, but if your 11-year-old is not able to comply agreeably with the conditions you have laid out, try again in six months or a year.

Parents delight in the smiles on the faces of the children when a longed-for gift is unwrapped. But in the long run, we want the gifts we give our children to add to their lives, rather than remove something from them. If your son lives in fear of you taking away the phone, or feels miserable because you limit his use, it may in fact be a gift that doesn't contribute to his genuine happiness.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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