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When A Cell Phone Is Something More

When A Cell Phone Is Something More

By Mir Kamin

If there’s one thing my teenage daughter will quickly confirm about me, it’s that I am not swayed by “but all my friends have…” or “all my friends get to…” (much to her chagrin). To hear her tell it, she is the only kid in her circle who doesn’t have a smart phone, doesn’t have her own personal laptop, doesn’t have a television in her room, still has a bedtime, etc. I am either old-fashioned or an outright monster, depending on the day. And I am perfectly okay with that. In fact, she should probably be grateful that her father and I are divorced, both because he provided just about every piece of tech she and her brother own without consulting me, and also because this is how she ended up with a cell phone.

My kids were just 8 and 10 the first time they vacationed with their dad after we’d moved away. Although I’d always been nervous to have them away from me (not due to anything their dad did or didn’t do, just because I’m a worrier), somehow the 1,000 mile distance made it even harder. So we made the decision to get the kids their own phone, and any time they went on visitation I’d give it to my daughter (she’s the oldest) and say the same three things: Call whenever you want to; don’t lose it; and let your brother use it whenever he wants to, too. For a couple of years, that was it. But then my daughter got involved in various school activities and trips, and more and more I was taking the phone out and letting her take it with her to call us when she needed a ride, and by the time she was 13, it was her constant companion. Now that she’s 15, she pays half the “unlimited texting” fee each month, as texting is her second—but preferred—language. Also, did you know we’re the only horrible parents who won’t pony up for a data plan? She has friends with iPhones and such, and it is so unfair. (Pro tip: When she insists on asking why her friends get to have those things and she doesn’t, I like to tell her it’s because her friends’ parents love them more than we love her.)

Last week my daughter came to us and asked if she could please get a new phone—her current one was two years old and having some problems, probably due to her constant texting. We checked our plan and she was eligible for an upgrade, so together we decided on which (free) phone she would get, negotiating the upgrade fee (she’s paying it), and then, to my surprise, she suggested we get her brother a phone, too. “Sometimes I want to text him and he doesn’t have one,” she said.

My knee-jerk reaction was not even “No” so much as it was “Hell, no.” He’s only 13 (the same age his sister was when her cell phone became her favorite appendage)! We homeschool and he’s rarely someplace without me! He loses things all the time! Plus, you know, he’s just not social the way she is, so it would be silly.

These were all of the thoughts I had before allowing myself to acknowledge the real underlying thought, which was more along the lines of: He’s autistic, and that brings precious few advantages to our lives, but one of them is that he has no need to “keep up” with other teens. And at thirteen-and-a-half, socio-emotionally he’s still like a much younger child. Plus, he’s never asked for a phone.

I told my daughter I’d think about it, and later that night I brought it up to my husband. His initial reaction was pretty much the same as mine. It’s certainly not something he needs. Then again, I doubt any teen needs a phone. I began to realize this was one of those crossroads; while I am more than comfortable letting my son proceed at his own pace through life—which, for him, means the constant whiplash of being extremely advanced in some areas while far behind the developmental curve in others—there’s no denying that sometimes he requires a little nudge towards greater independence or age-appropriate socialization. Just recently he started calling a friend on a regular basis (mostly they talk about Pokemon, but hey, he’s chatting on the phone with a friend), and last week I dropped him off at a new friend’s house for a few hours. Yes, we have a home phone he can use to call his friends. Yes, the house where I dropped him had phones. But… he’s nearly in high school. Might this be one of those nudge-worthy situations?

We asked him what he thought about getting his own phone. “Really?” he asked, eyes growing round. Then: “I… don’t know. I’d probably lose it.” I smiled and squelched a giggle (that had been one of my first thoughts, too) and assured him that he could handle it. Remember when he first got glasses and had to learn to always put them down in the same place? Remember when he first started wearing a watch and he used to forget to put it on in the morning, but now it’s part of the routine? He listened and nodded, and eventually grinned. “I could text my friends! And my dad! And my sister!” His excitement grew. The decision was made.

Make no mistake, this is an unnecessary luxury (if you can call a $10/month addition to our cell plan a luxury…) and we know it. But it’s also a piece of typical-teen-dom we’re fortunate enough to be in a position to provide, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds. Will he become a texter, like his sister? Will he mostly use it to call his Pokemon pal to discuss monster stats? Will he remember to charge it while he’s away with his dad so it’s not dead when I want to check in?

And, uh, just to clarify… it’s probably not okay for me to duct tape the phone to him, huh…? Because there’s already a pool going on how long it’ll be before he loses it.

Published May 28, 2013. Last updated May 28, 2013.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Arnebya

    May 29, 2013 at 10:11 am

    We got our daughter a phone last year and although the intent was a Go phone or some other prepaid kind, I walked into AT&T and got dizzy. They were so pretty, so sleek, and she was so very happy. There is no tv in their bedroom (not even the ability to watch tv during the week). There is no other electronic device outside of the Kindle which is pretty much books and games only. She was on the bus to school alone so we felt she needed a phone, but just one with call/text ability. But then, the dizziness. Needless to say, she wound up with a smartphone and I learned rather quickly that no 12 yr old needs the internet in her pocket (I knew that before; why did I let the newness of those phones dizzy me?). I use AT&T’s smart limits so that she can’t access the internet during the school day. At home there’s no need to use the phone for the internet when there’s a desktop and laptop (which she isn’t allowed to use unless it’s in the dining room where the desktop is because ha ha there is no such thing as internet privacy).

    When she says the “but so and so’s parents let her” we tell her the opposite of what you say: it’s because her parents hate her and want pedophiles to find her easily. What? It makes us giggle when she huffs and walks away. What I love, though, is that you have her pay for a portion of what she wants.

  • Flannery

    May 29, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Sounds like you came to a great conclusion! Hope he does well with it and it opens up more social opportunities for him.

  • Amanda

    May 29, 2013 at 10:24 am

    My son has an ipad, and I’ve learned that through a game that he and his dad play together, he prefers to talk to people online. He finds it less taxing than in person interactions on him sensory wise, and he likes that he has a chance to think about what he’d like to say more than when the person is directly in front of him. 

  • The Domestic goddess

    May 29, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Quite the conundrum. Thinking about this one myself. He insists “but all the kids have one, mom!” And I went to school to volunteer and to pick him up and sure enough every 13yo in that school has a freaking iPhone. But he doesn’t like to answer the phone. Huh. But he texts like nobody’s bidnizz when he has a wifi signal and uses his iPod. Decisions, decisions…

  • J-Nut

    May 29, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Sounds like you made the right decision and I live that your kids want to text each other!

  • Katherine

    May 29, 2013 at 10:49 am

    My 14 yo son doesn’t have a phone and hasn’t asked for one, unlike most of his friends who have had smartphones for several years. He does have an iPod touch, which is a constant companion, though for games and books, not texting. I’ve offered to set him up with google voice so he can text (I use it for my texting since its free and I have a basic phone which is a PITA to text on). 
    My 17 yo son has a smart phone, with unlimited text. We’re mean and make him pay $15/month for the plan AND mow the front yard to offset cost of said phone (its a prepaid plan, so they don’t offer free phones). 

  • suburbancorrespondent

    May 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    “her friends’ parents love them more than we love her” – ha! We say the same thing!

    My almost-11-year-old is bugging me for some sort of music player (not that she knows any popular music, but she sees the older girls with them). Unfortunately, I am a nut about the earbuds thing – I’m convinced that this entire generation will have notable hearing loss at age 35. Still trying to come up with something that looks cool, but can be listened to without earbuds…

    • adelina sowell

      November 28, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      Hi, Check out Indiegogo. It’s a crowdfunding website that has new innovations that people look to find funding for. They have some products that are already completed and ready for purchase. there are some very cute over the ear headphones that look like cat ears and light up. Yes, they are also made for adults to wear! 🙂 Maybe that is something you could check out and be able to set a volume limit on them.

  • JMH

    May 29, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    My 12 yr. old got a cell phone for her birthday. We took in my husband’s old phone (not a smart phone) and re-activated it for her. She can only call/text with it and it is a bit old fashioned, but she was (is) thrilled with it. I didn’t want to get her one yet, but with all of her after school activities, and her younger brother’s activities, it was easier for her to call me if plans have changed. Now, when I was in middle school-like a century ago- we had pay phones available to call our parents. That doesn’t exist anymore, and if the school office is closed, she always had to use someone else’s phone to call us. She is being very responsible with it and she will NOT get a smartphone until much later…no matter what her friends have! I am a technology teacher and there is NO WAY I would give any middle school kids that much unfiltered access to the Internet….I have heard too many horror stories! 

    On a side note- Mir-what cell provider do you use and/or which one has the best family plan? Ours is OK for now, but when my son gets a phone, I may want to shop around for a cheaper plan.

    • Mir Kamin

      May 29, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      We are on AT&T and I’ve been pleased with them for the most part… where we live, coverage is spotty unless you have Verizon or AT&T, so some of the admittedly cheaper options weren’t good fits for us. I think it depends a lot on where you live and what your needs are for the parent phones (I’m willing to spend a little more, for example, because my cell doubles as my business line). Paying $10/line to add the kids’ phones is very reasonable IMHO and I think that’s fairly standard across carriers on a family plan for a non-data-plan-carrying phone.

  • Ally

    May 29, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    My husband and I don’t have cell phones. I don’t need one. My kids won’t have one until they can pay for it and all the fees. I’m sure they will think we are mean, but I hope they look back and appreciate all the traveling they got to do as kids and see cell phones are no way a necessity. 

  • Jessica

    May 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    We went through this exact same debate and ultimately got one soon before Ashlyn started high school and yes, she has lost it, broken it, left it in the rain but it’s always been sort of sweet to watch her figure her way through something that is a typical teen thing. Maybe we should start a contest for whose teen keeps the same phone working longest.

  • Laura

    May 29, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I got my son, who happens to have Down Syndrome, a phone when he was around 14 due to the issues of sports practices and needing to reach him when we were away from each other etc. It turned out to be an amazing blessing. I think it has been a great teaching tool and it keeps him in touch with some of the “normal” facets of teen-dom. I say this as he is about to leave his teen years behind in less than 2 months (sniff…my baby will be 20) but I think that phone was one of the best purchases I ever made (not a smartphone but that’s what his iPad is for – and the iPad never leaves the house). I was highly skeptical at first, but he never lost it and I think it opened up the world to him a bit more (texting friends and family), and it made me feel much safer knowing I could reach him when necessary. I particularly love getting texts from him while at the grocery store…Mom don’t forget strwberis. Of course his spelling has improved with the phone too, but strawberries can be a hard word 😉 There are certain upsides to technology – with reasonable limits – I think.

  • Heather

    May 29, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    It’s a whole new way for Chickadee and Monkey to annoy each other 😉  Haha seriously though I think you guys are great.  Good luck with the not losing it thing!  (Phone and otherwise 😛 )

  • Elise Ronan

    May 29, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    My boys are now youngmen and we dealt with this issue years ago. Both of my boys have had cell phones since 5th grade. It gives them peace of mind that they can call you if they want (and vice versa) Make sure you know who they give their number to though and monitor any usage. My youngest didn’t ask when he overused the phone for games and he had to do chores to makeup the money spent. Lesson learned. Even to this day he asks before he downloads. And it does make them feel typical. Which considering there is so much in their lives that is not typical it is fine to give into some typical teen wants.

    It is a good locator devise too. Make sure the location is on and get the service from At&T so you can track his cell phone. We used it to lojack out oldest son when he wouldn’t answer his phone at college. He has seizures and everyone was afraid he had fallen and hit his head (security was even searching for him at that point).

    You see it doesn’t really end when you think it does….

  • Kelly

    May 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    This was our exact thought process before getting out 15 year old his phone. He is the oldest in our house so he’s behind the curve for sure, but it worked for us. 

    We actually went with an iPhone for him since the iPhone 4 was free and by adjusting our plan slightly we didn’t end up paying up more.

    He still doesn’t use it the way typical teens do, but I’m ok with that. 

  • Wendy

    May 31, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    My now 17 year old got her first phone just before she turned 12. Only talk and text. I’d heard so many parents say that their kids talked to them more once they got texting. IT was very true with her. She finally starting talking to me again. She got her first smart phone 2 years ago when they were free, and she pays the data plan herself. This year she paid for her very own upgraded phone and got a very nice one. We were very on top of things for the first couple of years, but have slacked off quite a bit. She is a good kid, if we suspected otherwise, we would be much more strict. Our 10 year old is begging for a phone and has been for a while now. She has an ipod and a tablet, but neither has texting or calling and they won’t. She doesn’t need it. We just keep telling the younger two that they have to wait until they are 12, and at that point they will get phones with no data at all. When we can trust them, we will think about lifting that restriction. You have to earn it first.

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