Eventually, your child is going to grow up and have a cellphone.
In fact, recently the Pew Research Center reported six in 10 teens have or have access to a smartphone, and 94 percent of those teens go online daily thanks to that phone.
This may be traumatic, but there’s good news: Bestowing the use of a cellphone on your cherub presents tremendous learning opportunities for all of life. In fact, a cellphone contract can act as a roadmap for lessons in manners, kindness, respect and the biggest one of all: responsibility.
Now that you’re feeling properly overwhelmed and underqualified, relax. You endured the potty training phase, and this is actually similar. You can put off addressing a stinky subject indefinitely, but if too much time passes, you will find yourself cleaning up your child’s messes.
So. Let’s begin. Deep breaths.
Create a contract
That’s right. Create a binding agreement whereby a child’s failure to abide by the rules will result in the forfeiture of his possession of the phone.
No need to start rifling through your contacts for a lawyer. You can create this contract yourself or — because parenting is all about stealing the best ideas and using them to your advantage — you can copy or print out examples linked below.
You’re probably wondering how to introduce the contract concept to a child who has seen enough Law & Order to consider lawyering up on her own. The truth is, you’re handing your child a device that can lead to incredible harm. Today’s smartphone is a bridge to lots of things right and lots of things wrong with our society and it’s our job to help our children understand the power that little plastic box can yield.
“We keep the lines of communication very, very open and tell [our daughter Kayli] to have very low privacy expectations with her phone,” explained Galit Breen, author of the book Kindness Wins and mom to Kayli (11), Chloe (9) and Brody (7). “If she clams up about what we’re seeing on her phone, she loses it until she opens up again.”
Breen said she’s actually eager for her children to have technology access earlier. “I want to be right in there with the teaching and conversations as they’re forming their phone and online habits before my kids start valuing their friends’ opinions more than mine.”
Perhaps the most important understanding a parent and child can have is that mistakes will happen. When Janell Burley Hofmann crafted a cellphone contract for her 13-year-old son, she wrote: “You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You & I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.” Hofmann is the author of the book, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up and creator of what she calls, “Slow Tech Parenting.”
Discuss the 5 Ws (and H!) of usage rules
Why have you decided your child should have a phone? Late-night volleyball practices, like Breen? Good behavior? As a lesson in responsibility? All of the above?
Who is your child allowed to add to the phone’s contacts? Whose calls do they absolutely positively always have to answer? (Yours!)
What will happen when (notice I didn’t say if) your child loses or breaks the phone?
Where is your child allowed to bring the phone? School? Church? The bathroom? (Yes, seriously. Ew.)
When is your child allowed to use the phone? Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. only?
How is the child allowed to use the phone? What apps can he or she download? When does your child need to ask permission specifically? Breen cautioned parents to pay attention to the temptation of links within parent-approved apps, for example, within an Instagram friend’s bio.
Parents will want to connect regularly to keep track of a child’s activity such as texts, incoming and outgoing calls and app downloads. Talk about what games are OK and be clear about what links your child has permission to click on. Breen points out that sometimes a strange link will be within an app.
Which leads to even stickier subjects: What do you want your child to do if he or she receives an alarming text or call? How do you hope your child conducts herself during text conversations or on social media?
Breen said focusing conversations on kindness is key.
“Most mistakes aren’t made ‘at us’ as parents,” she pointed out. “They’re truly examples of kids learning. So leave the door open for them to tell you about their mistakes by listening and helping them come back from their mistakes.”
Now that you’re on the contract wagon, here’s the fine print: “Having a contract or a private account or phone restrictions doesn’t replace the direct, ongoing conversations you need to have with your kids,” Breen advised. “Anything that’s important to you, you need to teach them directly and repeatedly.”
Find more downloadable contracts: