My mother recently bought some Skechers tennis shoes for my 7-year-old daughter. I was flabbergasted to see the free gift inside the box: a cell phone charm. A cell phone charm? For a 7-year-old?
Am I out of touch or does anybody else think it’s crazy for a young child to carry a cell phone? It made me mad that a company was trying to push this stuff on kids. Of course it’s the parents’ decision to buy their child a cell phone or not, but the charm was like giving a child an empty ice cream cone.
Life will play its course, but I don’t plan on letting my children have cell phones or personal computers until they are in high school, or close to it. I guess we’ll be going against the grain since a Washington Post article “Cell Phones: How Early is Too Early?” reports that “one in five 8-year-olds are cell phone users,” according to the latest Nielsen data, and that the average age a child first gets a cell phone is now 9 years.
Even though kiddie phones like Firefly or TicTalk , which feature games and parent controls, can be had for $50 (in addition to the monthly plan), a cell phone is minor luxury. (For an older child, most carriers charge about $20 for unlimited texting, on top of the voice plan, for at least $60 per month.)
I get that some families might need a phone or child GPS device for safety or logistical reasons, but in most cases when you are careful with money, you don’t buy your first-graders cell phones. Yet the decision is more complex, of course.
A Tight Budget’s Silver Lining
How we choose to spend our money is a reflection of our values. I “can’t afford” a cell phone for my daughter because I don’t want to (because I worry it will make her grow up faster, be influenced by negative aspects of mass media culture, become spoiled).
Many elements of our family’s way of life began from a basic constraint: our limited spending power. We cook instead of ordering in, hang at the playground instead of at after-school classes, pitch in with chores as a family instead of hiring a cleaning service. But I’ve come to see these habits as improvements in the quality of our lives. Choices that I don’t want to change — even if we strike gold one day.
Putting It All in Perspective
When I worry that I’m not giving my children enough, I think of Laura Ingalls in the Little House on the Prairie series (which my daughter and I have been reading together almost every night since kindergarten, book by book).
Besides having almost no personal possessions or toys, Laura and her sisters did a lot of work. In fact, their days were filled with chores and working to survive. Were they any less happy? I doubt it.
Comparing our lives to those of other families — throughout time and over the world — always makes me feel better. Children don’t wither on the vine if they don’t get the latest gadget or their mother’s helicoptering attention. In fact, chances are they’re better off without.
So How Do You Say No to a DS, Play Station, or Cell Phone?
My daughter hasn’t overtly asked me or begged me — yet. When she does, I will say no and tell her we don’t want to spend our money that way. If she offers to spend her allowance money, my answer would still be no and here is why:
Computers, TV and video games (and let’s face it — cell phones are mini-computers) rob time from things that are good for her: making friends, getting out in nature, learning by doing (helping around the house, creating things, developing hobbies), playing freely, reading and getting exercise.
I might give my daughter this explanation once or twice, but after that the answer will be a simple no. Nancy Samalin, a parenting educator and author of Loving Without Spoiling, suggests that reasoning is not a way to get your child to obey. All those “why’s” are just ways to break us down. In fact, a survey found that kids will beg for something an average of nine times before the parents give in. So if we really believe in something, the trick is to steel up our iron wills and be prepared to stand firm. (For more ideas, see the article “Unspoil Your Child” by Marisa Cohen.)
“When you say no to another gizmo, say yes to something your child really wants — your time,” advises the Center for the New American Dream in their downloadable booklet Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture. They go on to say:
In What Kids Really Want that Money Can’t Buy, author Betsy Taylor points to surveys and self-reports that indicate what children really want more than stuff is time — with parents, friends, and extended family. According to a 2003 New American Dream poll, 57 percent of children age 9-14 would rather do something fun with their mom or dad than go to the mall to go shopping. Kids yearn to get off the treadmill with their families and simply have unstructured fun…whether it’s playing games, cooking, reading together, or just sharing space with the TV off.
This advice can be a hard pill to swallow. In our fast-paced world, we are always trying to get more and more done. Going to the baseball game with a child does not feel like “getting something accomplished.” And buying a gadget for a kid that will keep him entertained for hours is awfully tempting.
Starting a ritual activity both you and your child enjoy can be a win-win situation. Not many parents want to sit down and play trucks or dress-up. But they might want to play cards together, or make cookies, go running together, have tea (or hot chocolate) and listen to music, write letters or organize closets. (Yes, kids like to do that stuff — especially if they get to do it with you.) The ritual part (every Sunday night, for example) ensures that you’ll keep making space for quality time together.
These are simply my points of view. What about you? Any thoughts on the subject of cell phones for kids, frugal living, or what kids really want?