How Best to Develop Cell Phone Manners

A Toy to Enjoy - The CellphoneCredit: jseliger2, CC by 2.0, FlickrThis is a hot topic.  Many parents provide their children with cell phone or other computerized gadgets without ever having a discussion with them about what the parent considers to be appropriate usage. Imagine showing up to run a 5K race where the sponsors provided no directions to where the course travels.  There would be a lot of confusion and many individuals would strike off in their own direction in a feeble attempt to make the best of the situation.

This is the environment children find themselves when it comes to cell phone usage.  Parents hand them the device, tell them not to take calls from strangers, and then get upset with their children for texting at the dinner table or ignoring their parents all together.  There’s a better solution.

Before we start, ask yourself a critical question - What issue frustrates you the most about the use of cell phones by youngsters?  If you answered texting while driving, lack of consideration for others in a room, or lack of ability to stop clicking while you are talking to them – then you might want to read a few of the examples outlined below.  During the process of raising 3 girls, my wife and I have had to find ways to develop some common ground with our children on the topic of technology.  Not an easy topic to solve.  Let’s jump in.

The Toy

Loving To TextCredit: smoorenburg, CC by 2.0, FlickrI recommend establishing early in a child’s development a clear understanding that technology is a tool, an extension of oneself, and not the center of the universe.  From the moment our girls turned 3 years of age, I have called every gadget in your house a “toy”.  I’m not kidding.  Since our girls were 3, I have always called my cell phone “The Toy”.  I do it openly, even in public and especially at family events.  If my phone is ringing, I may ask someone standing next to it “Would you mind passing me that annoying toy?” Yes, I don’t always have my cell phone strapped to my hip or in my back pocket waiting for the next jolt of “Holy crap I’m being zapped again”.  Another example is if the remote control for the TV is on the other side of the couch, I might ask one of the girls “please pass me The Toy”.  Every gadget is a toy by definition.  Why?

Kids grow up playing with toys.  They like their toys.  They cherish their toys.  They share their toys with others.  They talk to their toys when no one else in the room.  As they get older, they put their toys away – on a shelf, in their bureau, in the attic.

Their ability to “put it away” is the key point here. I literally market (brand) cell phones as “toys” wherever possible to leverage the cultural stigma that adults don’t play with toys.  Basically, I am branding devices as something non-essential, external, and not central to our existence.  By calling devices a toy I have planted the seed in my child’s mind that it is okay to disconnect from the device and it’s not okay to ignore those around you.   And much to my neighbor’s surprise, the technique has worked.

Paying 1/2

Starting when our children turn age 6, we (as parents) agreed to pay ½ for any gadget that they purchase, but to receive our ½ of the payment they need to write down “10 usage guidelines” on a piece of paper.  They need to feel the items on the list are fair and they would agree to follow them.  At least 2 of the topics on the list need to be an outline of what they feel would be a fair penalty if they don’t follow the other 8 guidelines that they outlined. What we are trying to establish is an understanding with our children that there are consequences for poor behavior.  The younger girls are creative and have titled their first draft “My First Official Contract” (there might have been some coaching on the title by their older sister).

The List

An example of the type of items they listed prior to purchasing an iTouch, our youngest jotted down a variety of ideas such as “1. I agree to shut off my iTouch at 9:00pm at night.” and “2. When an adult asks me a question, I must put down my iTouch until the conversation is completed”.   To increase the significance of the list they created, my wife and I both sat on the couch and allowed them to present their list to us.  We asked a couple questions and then we both signed the sheet of paper which adds significance to the page.  This approach teaches the girls that their input matters and that what they have outlined we find to be fair and they should consider it binding.  Yes, they too have to sign it.  I have even gone the extra step of going to Walmart and purchased a $3.00 frame.   A framed photo last longer on a shelf that a loose photo, as did the paper agreement signed by our oldest daughter.  The framed contract became a conversation piece in her room – a symbolic trophy on her bookshelf of her successful closing the deal with Mom & Dad for her first iTouch.


Why does this approach work?   The combination of branding gadgets as toys in your home and obtaining a set of Use Guidelines drafted by the child prior to their purchasing a gadget will pay huge dividends in the form of respectful use of technology in your household.  We have several neighbors that comment on how well mannered our girls are and they openly share that they wish their kids would “stop clicking on their phone when they talked to them”.  Well sorry to say, the problem is not their kid’s fault, rather the problem is the result of their parent’s lack of planning.

Kids are competitive and enjoy the feeling of success.  If you outline the rules of any game with them, they will find a way to succeed.  The problem with cell phone usage is that this is a new technology and societal norms have not yet been fully established in our culture.  By outlining our expectations with our girls, we have established a clear (mutually accepted) set of guidelines that they excel at.

The irony – I have a Bachelors degree in Engineering.  Yet, when it comes to raising my children, I don’t glorify technology.  Go figure.