How Being Frugal Can Preserve Your Child’s Innocence

Cell phones for 7-year-olds?

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?

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  • Stephanie December 21, 2009, 11:06 pm

    I’m glad other moms feel the same way about cell phones for elementary-aged kids. I guess I’m old-fashion like that but I would laugh if my daughter asked for a cell phone! Then kids just ask for more, more, more with a sense of entitlement :(
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Kids Eat Free at….. =-.

  • Amy December 16, 2009, 2:31 pm

    Scott: See this post by Nancy Shohet West. You inspired a whole article!

    Al: I love the part about how your sons often talk about your long walks and family nights. That is just so sweet!

  • Al December 15, 2009, 5:08 pm

    Excellent post! The magical thing that happens when you spend time with your kids is talk. They ask questions, you answer, you ask questions, they answer, and in this way values are passed along in a natural manner. It seems like you’re sacrificing a lot at first, but those times, taking long walks or baking cookies together, are the memories they end up treasuring the most. My sons never talk about what fun the Nintendo was, but they often speak about our long walks and family game night.

  • Scott December 13, 2009, 12:25 pm

    As the proud owner of a Wii, I enjoy spending time with my kids using “gasp”, technology to bond and have fun with them. I would never feel that it can replace fresh air and sunshine, but it isn’t the devil, either. I think all things in moderation is a good rule of thumb to follow–and as far as materialism goes…none of us need bigger houses, just less clutter.

    Amy, does this mean we should leave the Wii at home for the Farm trip?

  • Amy December 3, 2009, 10:58 pm

    What enheartening comments! Thank you so much everyone for piping in. I’m glad to hear there are some kindred spirits out there.

    Melanie: I hear you on the time problem. We often want to tackle new ideas with gusto that we don’t realize how much 30 mins a week of one-on-one time can mean to a child. If we lock it into a certain time and day, it’s much easier to stick with and not let other commitments encroach.

    Kristin: I’m sure there is a reasonable balance with kids and technology, but as with most things, balance is hard to achieve. I think the key would be to set strict limits on screen time or whatever and then stick with it.

    Michelle: I love your idea of asking birthday party guests to bring presents for a charity, instead of your child. And that your daughter is so accepting and in fact enthusiastic of this plan.

    It’s true — children get so much these days, even just from relatives, that all the birthday presents can seem like more clutter and noise in our lives.

    Nancy: When you mentioned that your children spent a lot of time in their rooms once they got their own computers, I felt a tinge of sadness (imagining that happening in my own family). Another reason to hold off for now with personal game devices: there is a time for everything, as my friend Elizabeth says.

    Amy: The texting back and forth between father and daughter goes to show you that technology can certainly be used for good. Other examples are video conferences, email and family blogs as a way to stay in touch with friends and family.

    Madeleine: Your memories of the times you spent with your father doing mundane activities was very touching. I like how you did chores together: a great time for bonding and learning.

    Julia: I’m glad you see where I’m coming from. There is something about an old-fashioned, frugal way of life that just seems right to me.

  • JuliaH December 3, 2009, 10:18 pm

    Great post! Your words remind me again that not all families are into materialism and overscheduling their kids with a number of pricy activities. To me it all seems like buying time to be away from their kids (literaly in case of technology and in a sense that these parents chose to pay someone to teach their child how to play, cook, dance, draw instead of exploring these activities together or by themselves in a free play enviroment). Family frugality and growing self-confident, creative and responsible kids are very much related. Thanks for your post.

  • Madeleine December 3, 2009, 3:36 pm

    They’ll thank you! I think my happiest memories of my father, who was a prominent surgeon with a busy practice, teaching and lecturing schedule, are of washing the dishes together and then walking the dog–every night when he was at home–and stripping and painting a porch. On the walks we talked about everything, life, death, his childhood. Doing the porch, we both got so punchy, I still smile every time I go there. He taught me to change a tire, build bee-hives, fix a toilet too. I grew up knowing that I was loved and could handle anything, even old plumbing; priceless and everlasting gifts.

  • Amy Reads Good Books December 3, 2009, 2:48 pm

    Great post! I am so in agreement with you on the cell phones. As a stepmom, of course, I don’t always have the final say on parenting issues. Our 13-year old stepdaughter has had a phone since sixth grade.

    While it is a hassle sometimes, the other night she spent the evening texting silly notes to my husband (who was in the living room while she was in the dining room). The two of them had a blast coming up with goofy things to say, and I thought it was pretty adorable that they had such a good time. It just goes to show, though, that interaction with Mom and Dad is usually the thing that kids and even teens really crave.
    .-= Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog ..Booking Through Thursday =-.

  • Nancy Feyen December 3, 2009, 1:18 pm

    My children are in their twenties now but I’m glad they grew up without computers. They played together and with friends. I read to them every day, helped with math homework and second language workbooks. My mother-in-law and I both developed a passion for Lego. After the evening meal the only activity allowed was reading in bed until they dozed off. They got their cell-phones in high school so we could keep track of them. Once they got computers, they started spending a lot of time alone in their rooms.

  • Michelle December 3, 2009, 9:04 am

    You are so right, Amy! Materialism is learned and we can definitely “unlearn” it along with our kids. When my daughter turned 5, we started a birthday tradition of giving back instead of getting. Together, we choose a charity and ask birthday guests to bring presents for them instead of for the birthday girl.

    The first year, I definitely led the choosing (that year it was the animal shelter to go with her cats and dogs birthday party theme). And, I wasn’t sure she would be fully on-board. But, she still got presents from her grandparents and parents — just the volume was much reduced! And, the joy she had when we delivered the presents to the animal shelter was immeasurable!

    We’re going on the fourth birthday like this and she’s been thinking of a charity to give to all year long. It’s still a constant battle against commercialism and materialism, but I feel like the foundation for the lesson is there and combined with a little less TV (read: commercials) I feel like we’re making progress.

  • Kristin December 3, 2009, 5:35 am

    It is so interesting that this is something parents struggle with on a daily basis. I think parking children in front of technology is akin to eating a bag of potato chips: it is wonderful for those 3o minutes, but then you feel guilty and horrid afterwards…

    When it comes to children and technology, is there a reasonable balance? I would love to know what other parents think.

  • Nancy December 2, 2009, 10:29 pm

    Great post, Amy, and thanks so much for linking to my essay about running. The cell phone issue has been resolved (for now) in our family but you made me think about other “growing-up-fast” issues, like nail polish and makeup, so I blogged about that here:

  • melanie December 2, 2009, 9:46 pm

    I love this post. So much of it rings true to me. The temptation is so strong to buy new gadgets and stuff, especially with the holidays around the corner. Kids really do want time with parents but the challenge always is finding that time. Always a struggle in every family I’m sure.