Considering Giving Your Child a Cell Phone This Christmas? Make Sure Your Child Has Met These Milestones First

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There are so many benefits to allowing your child to have their own cell phone, and Christmas provides a great opportunity to introduce your child to this important responsibility.

But how do you know your child is ready?

When I work with families in my private practice, one of the top concerns for parents always revolves around cell phones: their child either uses the phone to contact (or send pictures) to people the parents don’t approve of, or the child loses/breaks the expensive phone.

Since this is such a hot-button issue and I know that many parents are considering buying a cell phone for their child for Christmas, I thought I would share with my readers here the advice that I give to my private practice clients. Before giving your child their own cell phone, I believe that the child should have met certain life milestones BEFORE taking on this important responsibility.


The Milestones

When evaluating the milestones below, I don’t mean that your child should ALWAYS be perfect in these areas, but, instead, that they are generally – or mostly – compliant in these areas.

For example, if you can think of 2-3 times that your child was not successful over the past month in one of the milestones discussed, then more than likely your child has not hit that milestone yet.

When considering whether or not to get your child their own cell phone (or, for that matter, any other device that can connect to the internet), evaluate your child’s maturity in the following 5 milestones.


Milestone #1: Your child isn’t purposefully deceptive (they don’t have a habit of hiding things from you).

If your child doesn’t have a habit of hiding things from you in order not to get into trouble, then you know that your child has met this milestone.

This is important because your child will need to understand that while the cell phone is considered “theirs,” it still belongs to the parent. This means that you should know their password to log on to the phone and be able to access their phone at a moment’s notice.

You should also be able to access any apps that hey download onto their phones as well. Some kids might try to complain that this is a violation of their privacy, but it should be understood that parents have the ability to access the phone at any time to provide proper supervision. As your child gains your trust in this area, then you don’t have to check their phones as often.


Milestone #2: Your child mainly tells the truth.

If you can ask your child tough questions and they generally give you an honest answer, then you know your child has met this milestone.

Your child has the ability to communicate with people you don’t approve of – or even strangers they meet on the internet – and being able to trust you child when you ask how they are using their phone is key. You will always have the ability to check what phone numbers they call, what websites they visit, and what they are doing on their apps, but being able to have tough, but truthful, conversations with your child about their phone use is important.

Your child might “bend the rules” from time to time, but if they fess up to what they’ve done, then they are still on the path of responsible behavior (they’ll just need a reminder to remain on that path!).


Milestone #3: Your child takes care of their possessions well.

If your child doesn’t have a reputation for breaking their things or losing them, then they have met this milestone.

Cell phones and wireless plans are very expensive, so you’ll need to know that your child will take care of their property well. Teach them how to keep their phones properly charged and safely stored in their backpack or purse to ensure that they are successful in keeping their phones safe.


Milestone #4: Your child is pretty good at obeying rules/guidelines/limits.

If your child doesn’t argue a lot when you remind them of the family rules, or if they comply pretty easily to family routines, then they have probably hit this milestone.

The acquisition of a new cell phone also means the acquisition of a whole new set of rules, so you’ll need to know that your child is capable of following rules. Parents should never allow their child to have a cell phone without also reviewing guidelines for its use.

Some families make sure their child turns in their phone to the parent at night. Other families don’t allow their kids to download any apps. Whatever your rules will be concerning your child’s cell phone, it’s important that they are able to follow those rules.


Milestone #5: Your child is able to participate in offline activities.

If your child has activities that they do offline, such as read books, play an instrument, play sports, or participate in any other hobby or activity, then they have met this milestone.

It’s natural that kids are fascinated by all that the online world has to offer – video games, chatting with friends, watching endless hours of Youtube, etc. – but they also need to be able to understand that there is a balance between things done online and things done offline.

When your child has access to a cell phone, they will need to have healthy boundaries for it’s use. Don’t assume that your child will know how to do this all by themselves – you will need to set that tone for them, especially at first. Later in this article, I’ll discuss a tool that you can use to help your child learn – and maintain – these boundaries.


What If Your Child Hasn’t Mastered These Milestones Yet?

If you feel like your child hasn’t hit one or all of the milestones mentioned above, then you can use the milestones as concrete goals for your child to work on over the next few months.

First, explain that you really want your child to get to the point where they are mature enough for a cell phone. (Your child might argue that their friends who are the same age already have a phone, but gently teach them that the rules in your home are different and that readiness isn’t about age, it’s about behavior).

Second, communicate clearly to your child the 5 milestones that must be met in order to earn the privilege of a cell phone, and where they are on each milestone.

Third, create concrete and clear behavioral expectations for the milestones that your child still needs work on. For example, if your child still has a problem with lying, then let your child know that over the next 2 months, they cannot be caught in a lie at all. Emphasize that it’s your child’s choice to behave in a way that earns them the phone (for review on autonomy, see this blog post, and for a review on positive reinforcement, see this article).

No matter how long it takes, continue to use the milestones as goals for your child and review their progress with them. Eventually, they’ll earn the privilege of the cell phone and you’ll have more confidence in them that they can handle it responsibly!


Think Your Child Is Ready? Ensure They Are Successful With This Tool

If your child is ready for the responsibility of a cell phone, set them up for success by using my cell phone contract to create and communicate your family’s rules regarding the cell phone.

The contract clearly states the days/times for use, and other guidelines about safety, internet use, etc. It is in a Word document so you can customize it however you need to in order to fit your family’s individual needs. It also include lines for you and your child to sign to show agreement.

This tool is a great way to have a good conversation with your child about your expectations regarding their cell phone use. Print out a copy for your records and for them so that they can review their rules as needed.


Take Home Message

Allowing your child to have their own cell phone can have both positives and negatives. It’s definitely safer for your child to have a cell phone when they are out and about outside of the home, and you’ll always have a way to contact them when you need them. The downside to the cell phone is that it provides an opportunity for your child to contact strangers, gain access to internet websites that are inappropriate, and other dangerous activities.

The only way to ensure that your child uses the cell phone responsibility is to make sure they have met the 5 milestones discussed in this article. Also, be sure to download the cell phone contract included in this article to set your child up for success with this important life skill.

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