Why I Got My 9-Year-Old a Cell Phone


I swore I wouldn’t give my daughter Franny a cell phone until she was thirteen. And whenever my nine-year-old asked, as she had been doing more frequently, “Mom, when can I have a cell phone?” this is what I told her.

There were a few reasons why I thought 13 was the magic cell phone number. She’d be responsible enough not to lose it. She’d be old enough to coordinate her own social plans. Her dad got her brother an iphone when he was thirteen and I wanted to be fair.

But giving a cell phone to a child still residing in the single digits seemed not just premature, but actually gross.

In the swanky city where I live, it is not at all unusual to spot prepubescent Paris Hilton wannabes strolling in Jackie O-size designer sunglasses, flashing an iPhone where an American Girl doll should be, chatting, or more often, texting during lunch at a pricey outdoor cafe. Whenever I spotted the parents of these tech-addicted children, they appeared perfectly content to ignore their offspring right back as they texted away on their own cell phones.

And what of the effect of habitual cell phone use on the development of social skills and friendships with real live friends? Last year The New York Times ran a piece on kids’ reliance on electronics and cited a study that found half of American teenagers send an average of 50 text messages a day. Of that number, 54% stated they are more likely to text friends than speak to them face-to face.

Experts quoted in the article raised provocative questions about how the frequent use of calling and texting affects a child’s ability to learn the subtle but vital aspects of social interaction: reading facial gestures, understanding emotional nuance, developing empathy. Of course, this is a greater concern for shy or awkward kids who are unsure how to navigate the social landscape — and may substitute texting for genuine interaction — than it is for gregarious young people who rely on calling and texting to maintain friendships or make plans to get together in real time.

And then there’s the effect on writing, grammar, forming thoughts: how will years of tapping out brief messages sans legitimate punctuation — “were going 2 movie b4 dinner c u soon” — impact expository writing and critical thinking skills, or even the ability to grow up and be an interesting dinner party conversationalist?

“Safety concerns” is a reason I’ve heard some parents give to justify buying a cell phone for a child. And for a teen out at the mall with friends, this seems legitimate. What mother wouldn’t want to know that her teen has not been lured away by Jerry Sandusky but has emerged, innocence in tact, from the movie theater with his posse of pals, ready to be retrieved?

The safety reason doesn’t apply to Franny, however. She is only nine, nowhere near old enough to be deposited in a public place unchaperoned. Until recently I would have told you that giving her a cell phone would do more harm than good.

That conviction crumbled a few days before Christmas when my husband, who is wary of giving kids too much electronics time, turned to me and said: “We should get Franny a cell phone.” And I replied, with a resigned shoulder slump: “Okay.”

Atticus and I had both grown weary of the increasingly frequent texts from my ex-husband, ostensibly to my daughter, but subtextually to me. Prince is just the teensiest bit flamboyant, so his messages to Franny were doused with multiple “I love yous!!!!!!!!” and “I can’t wait to see yous!!!!!!!!” and “Love, Dad xxxxxxxooooooos.” Upon receiving one of these texts, Franny would grab my phone and off the two of them would go on a protracted text exchange that would end only when I announced, “it’s time for dinner” or “I need my phone back.”

I have never texted a personal message to Franny on her dad’s cell phone. If I need to talk to her, I’ll call her dad or text him to have her call me. To me, texting Franny on her dad’s phone to tell her how much I love her or to tantalize her with all the fun things we’re going to do when I see her feels show-offy. Plus, texting her when she’s with her dad seems intrusive. The two of them deserve their time together, uninterrupted by me.

This is not the way my ex thinks. I had begun to resent being the communique liaison, not to mention feeling squeamish being put in the position of cyber-eavesdropping. But I still wanted to support my daughter’s relationship with her father, who sees her less than I do. So I let the texting between them continue.

Until last week when the texts took a turn for the blatantly inappropriate. My ex is a competitive fellow and anything and everyone associated with him is “the best.” Especially his new wife. I don’t know Sarah well, but from what I can tell she genuinely seems to love my kids and they are attached to her. For that, I’m happy.

But I’m not happy about my ex’s insinuations that Sarah is the Best Mother Ever. I don’t think that message serves my kids well. And texting this not-so thinly-veiled sentiment to my phone, where my ex knows I will undoubtedly read it, smacks of passive-aggressiveness.

An example: a couple weeks ago, my ex and his new wife were vacationing in Mexico. The following text appeared on my phone, under a photo of the two of them on a boat, proudly displaying a large pompano: “Look at the huuuuuge fish Sarah caught!!”

The metaphor was not lost on me. Enough was enough! It was time to set some boundaries around my ex’s communication with my daughter, which meant getting me and my cell phone out of the middle.

Atticus made a beeline for Best Buy and returned with a Samsung cell phone. When he converted our individual plans to a family plan, the Samsung Flight had been thrown in for free. We disabled the internet option — we did not want Franny being able to surf YouTube or be tempted to send photos to anyone and everyone that she might later regret. We gave her the bare necessities, what the cell phone is meant for her to do: call and text.

Franny was beside herself when she unwrapped her cell phone Christmas morning. She left for a ski vacation with her dad’s family the next day and I have to admit I love getting her updates, as delightfully mundane,  misspelled, and grammatically incorrect as they are:

U You get the drift.

After just a couple days of exchanging texts with my daughter, I experienced this unexpected side effect: I started to understand my ex’s compulsion to text Franny on my phone. I don’t think it was just to send me passive-aggressive barbs. I think he may have genuinely felt adrift with her out of his sight, wondering what she was doing, if she was okay.

Because that’s the way I felt yesterday when her text to me — “I just went on a huge roller,” followed by my question, “what kind of roller?” went unanswered. Until this morning, when she wrote back, “it’s a jump,” and I could dismiss images of her in a full-body cast.

I feel resolved about giving Franny her own phone. She is one of those just-add-water kids, a kid who willingly does her chores and her homework with little prodding, a sociable kid who would much rather have a playdate in real time than in cyberspace.

If she starts to abuse her cell phone privilege, say, texting for long stretches or during meals, I’ll have to limit her phone time or take it away altogether.

But for now, I believe that giving this particular nine-year-old her own cell phone was the right choice.

What do u think? Wud u give ur kid a cell phone? What age is 2 young?

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About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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32 Responses to Why I Got My 9-Year-Old a Cell Phone

  1. Totally get giving kids cell phones for safety/pragmatic reasons. It’s the gifting of iPhones just because the other kids have them rationale that unnerves me.

  2. Val says:

    Well I, too, got my 9 yr old his own cell ph… It was a futile attempt to help him be able to contact me when he was at his father’s. Let’s not get into the ugly details, but Z has always been responsible w/it & even now does not exceed his plan limits on talking & texting no that he’s a teenager.
    (well, he often forgets to charge it so that helps 😉

  3. Totally get giving kids cell phones for safety/pragmatic reasons. It’s the I’m-gonna-give-my-kid-an-iPhone-because-the-other-kids-have-them rationale that unnerves me.

  4. Val says:

    “NOW that he’s a teenager”…
    but fortunately cell ph use or possession is forbidden at Z’s middle school. All bets are off next yr when he starts HS.

  5. In your case, what choice did you really have? Great piece!

  6. I, too, was a subscriber to the school of thought prescribing a certain age for cell phone ownership. However, I’ve come to realize it’s more about maturity. My 9-year-old daughter would probably handle cell phone use even better than my 12-year-old son!

    However, I had been contemplating the idea of getting my son a cell phone for months, because my ex infrequently passes on my messages to my kids. My ex, however, preempted me and sent me an email indicating he was buying one for my son, and that I was “welcome” to use it to contact him when he was in his home. Seeing the writing on the wall about how the story would unfold, I asked if he and I could share the bill, which he refused. So, as I predicted:

    1. For the first few weeks he had his new phone, my son called/texted me all the time. This didn’t go over well in his other home.
    2. At his first “transgression,” my ex took it away from my son.
    3. He has never gotten it back. It has been 4 months.

    I didn’t want him to have 2 cell phones — that seems absolutely ludicrous — but I’m not sure what other options I have right now…

    Good post, Pauline. I’m glad I’m not alone in this plight, even though we all have different issues.

  7. Gina Osher says:

    I think you absolutely did the right thing for YOUR child. And really, that’s the best way to parent, isn’t it? Know your kids, know what they can handle and then make a decision based on what you know, rather than what others are doing for their kids. At least that’s what I always TRY to do with my kids. 🙂 I think, too, you showed Franny that you know you can trust her and that you think she’s responsible and that must feel great for her. Great post!

  8. Stan says:

    My daughter got a phone when she was 10. That was about the age that most of her friends started getting them, so they wanted to be able to communicate with each other. And it was also practical, since she spends alternate days at my house and at her mom’s. So being able to communicate directly with her wherever she is at the moment is very useful. As for the argument that it stunts kids’ social skills, I’m sure there was the same sort of hand-wringing about telephone use when we were kids. And while my daughter is very quick with the text-speak abbreviations and such, she can also write very well, which I think is all the more remarkable, since she doesn’t read much at all. (And that’s a whole other can of parental-angst worms.)

  9. TG says:

    You’ve always been sensible and insightful about such matters, so don’t doubt yourself (he types, smiling and thinking: THAT’s not gonna happen) .. Happy New Year to you and yours, all the best in 2012 .. I’ve become a bit of blog fan in 2011, largely due to your posts and links on fb – Keep up the good work!

  10. Mine asked for cell phones long before I thought it acceptable. Given that I’ve been a largely solo mom, once my two were no longer in the same school (and therefore on different hours, different buses (which they sometimes missed), different activity schedules) – and the elder (Mr. Responsibility) no longer able to watch out for the Little Brother (Mr. Head-In-The-Clouds), that was cell phone time. Around age 11 or so (beginning of middle school), despite the fact that their friends (needlessly, IMO) had cell phones long before.

    For us, it became a coordination necessity. Next best thing to Teleporting Beam or Cloning.

  11. This was such a great post! I love how you showed the evolution of your thought process and took into account all of your experiences – it was like reading into your mind’s eye! Fantastic.

    We got cell phones for our girls two Christmas’s ago. Our youngest was 8 and our oldest was 11. In our situation, they both have different mothers. Our youngest spends 50% of her time with her mom and step dad (swap every Friday and have a holiday schedule). Our oldest is with us full time and her mom lives across the country and she sees her as often as we can make it happen (a week or two over breaks). We got the cell phones for different reasons for each of them:

    Youngest was expressing that her mom and step dad were fighting all of the time and she was scared a lot. She stated she wanted to be able to reach out to us when her mom was fighting, but she had to go through her mom to use the phone. Well, we got the phone thinking that my husband could convince the parenting coordinator to help convince her mom that this would help in our youngest’s ability to communicate between houses, but it ended up causing more turmoil and we let it go. So, she uses it to keep in touch with us and a few other family members and for emergency purposes, but she still goes through our phones to talk to her mom and her friends.

    Oldest needed it for practical purposes to help with arranging pick-up more easily in after school care. It turned out to really help her relationship with her mom because she could have some privacy in developing her relationship with her mom. The phone has parental controls established and so she can only talk/text to certain people on it. At any rate, the phone has enhanced her life greatly and really helped her keep connected to her mom, bonus dad, and other sister who live all the way across the U.S. It helps her keep up her day-to-day with them without having to take time out for a long conversation which time zone differences and busy schedules can often make virtually impossible.

    I agree with what most of your commenters have said: each child is different and it makes sense to make the choice based on your child’s maturity. Our kids have been VERY responsible with their phones and it has given us a way to teach them how to be accountable for something. We use it as a way to teach them how to limit what pictures they keep on their phone, how to be responsible with accepting phone calls, what information to share and not to share with others, etc.

    So far, we have not had any problems with overuse, abuse, or inappropriate behavior. If anything, it has been a great tool to teach them how to be responsible with a phone and we can now add more and more capabilities as they are ready for them.

    I also think that when you are in a blended family situation, it is important to give the child(ren) a way to communicate with the other parent where they feel completely free to be themselves and connected. When you make them talk to the other parent while you are in the room or through your phone, it impacts the comfort level of the child and makes it hard for the child and the other parent to really connect. The other parent, however, would ideally be mindful of how much time they are spending and model appropriate behavior as well.

  12. Angela Hill says:

    Sounds like my daughter. She’s 22 now but when her dad and I divorced she sure wasn’t! I basically felt she needed on so that she could call me with out asking him. They don’t have a relationship at all now and back then it wasn’t too great either. It made me feel better to know that she could call me anytime she wanted/needed too and not have to be in fear of asking him about it or even discussing it for that matter! Good job!!

  13. Rachel says:

    I think one-size-fits-all arbitrary age requirements for things don’t work for every kid. We have to make policies about drinking age and driving age, but you ought to be able to determine on your own when your child is ready for a cellphone. It sounds like it brings her a lot of comfort to be able to reach out to her parents when she wants to, and I’m sure she’s grateful to have a mother who sees her as an individual and does what’s best for her.

  14. Sandy says:

    wow this all blows my mind. I mean it makes complete sense but it scares me so much. I have an eleven year old who is Pining for a cellphone and I just don’t know the way to go about it. I was thinking of a prepaid phone so I could be in control still and monitor her usage but she wants an iphone. Theres NO way I can afford that. Anyone try tracfone or any other prepaid phone?? It has everything she really needs and the price is right. I suppose I am just freaking out a bit.

  15. Tamy says:

    When I was 14, I got my first cell phone. It was a small CDMA, and I lost it within 6 months. This was around the time when schools outright confiscated cell phones, on or off, to be handed back 10 min after final bell and old ladies in the bus would yell at you if you had a cell phone. That said, most of my friends had them as soon as they entered high school (12-13). My cell phone privileges were taken away until I think around final year of high school when I had a lot of tutoring and prep classes to go to (I received partial access to my mother’s phone like Frannie). I had my own number and phone again in first year uni, and thankfully only lost the phone once (!) since, and I’ve long graduated university!

    Looking back the reason I lost my phones so easily was because there was the innate guilt and shame that I was doing something I shouldn’t be (owning a phone and talking to it in public) added with being unfamiliar with a phone. I think society in general is more permissive and accepting of cell phones now.

    I will definitely get my own children cell phones when they enter high school, if only because around here high schools have a nasty habit of “privatizing” resources – when bottled water in clasrooms became acceptable/affordable, the school outright stopped maintaining drinking fountains. I would not be surprised if the schools of 2030 started saying “everyone can download the free* maths textbook app and screw the poor kids who don’t have an iPadXX”.

    Sorry this came out as a long post out of the left field. I normally just lurk but the cell phone thing brought out a huge nostalgic memory.

  16. Jennifer McBride says:

    When I became single and didn’t want to pay for a landline, I got a “free” extra cell phone with my plan and made it into a house phone. That way my daughter (she was 7 at the time) had a way to communicate with her dad and it gave us another emergency phone. He did the same at his house. This Christmas, I upgraded the house phone and have started calling it “her” phone, even though it still doesn’t leave the house…except for last week when she texted me from her dad’s house while I was out of town visiting a sick relative.

    Like you, Pauline, I don’t like having to see the communication between my daughter and her father (expecially the texts about how his brand-new fiancee was excited to get my daughter’s permission to marry her father…ugh). But I do like being able to communication with her without going through her dad, as I’m sure he does with me.

    I’ve gone through the worry that she’s too young. But, with our family situation, this is the best option for all of us. Thanks for a wonderfully descriptive story about how you reached the same decision!

  17. You may have just convinced me to get my 10-year-old a cell phone. I get the texts for her from the ex and it’s getting ridiculous. Hmmm…

  18. Great post. I’m not sure what the “new wife is just the best” approach is meant to do, but it seems to be common. My kids ended up with cell phones early because their dad wouldn’t communicate with me so it was the only way to stay in touch with them when they were at his place. Amazing how far-reaching the insane divorce can be.

  19. I’m just glad I don’t have this particular problem. Mine is the worrying I do when I can’t reach my bipolar (adult) son via his cell phone. Sometimes it means he’s destroyed it in a manic episode when he thinks he’s being persecuted. Still, often I can find him, and that’s a huge relief. So, cell phones are here to stay.

  20. poots says:

    two things: 1-‘a just-add-water kid’ : can i quote you? i have one of those also, 9, also. soon a kid of diorced parents, also. never knew you had a daughter, only read about your son.
    2- gotta love the line ‘should have an American Girl doll under their arm instead’. love the rich-world assumptions, they’re rich. don’t get me wrong, my kid has one, also.

  21. Jen says:

    Those seem like good reasons. My mom got me one when I was a junior in high school (this was 2004) because pay phones were few and far between and I hated asking to borrow a friend’s phone (I hate asking for things). Even though F is still too young to be out alone, it is good for her to get used to keeping you informed so when she gets older it becomes instinct to let mom know that she’s stopping for a bite to eat before she gets home.

  22. Andrea says:

    I was completely loving my 9 yr old having a cell phone- we have no landline, so for an extra $10 a month it just made sense…. Until her friend got a cell phone & they were texting inappropriate messages, my daughter kept setting the texts to auto delete and I knew something was going on. Considering giving it back when she spends time at her dads but with the text option disabled.

  23. Kim says:

    This is exactly why my daughters got cell phones at 7 and 10. Beyond his intrusive messages on my phone, he would not give them access to a phone at his house, or his mother’s/their primary caregiver when they were with their dad. He would not give them my messages, so they would come back a week later asking me why I never called them. This only reinforced the sick message that I had “different priorities now, and didn’t care about them anymore” which was the constant mantra from the day we told the children we were divorcing. As a child of the 70’s, from a very practical and no-nonsense blue collar family, I would never have been able to imagine that my daughters would have cell phones when they were mere babies. It was ridiculous but so necessary.

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