An interesting article in the N.Y. Times Business section discusses whether and when to give your child a mobile phone. Written by a pediatrician, the author reports that nine month old babies, according to parent reports, are pretending to talk on a cellphone.
That may seem astonishing, but perhaps it shouldn’t. We know that early on children begin imitating adults. For better or worse, that’s how a lot of learning takes place. Parents talking on the telephone is something children see a lot – and often don’t like. It sometimes turns into a big issue, and maybe that is why it is an activity children imitate so often. Children pretending to talk on the phone, either with someone or alone, is a familiar sight. At times it helps children feel connected to someone close to them who is not nearby. Adults often think it is an accomplishment that is also cute, and serves a purpose by keeping children busy with something they enjoy doing.
Of course, good old fashioned land lines were stationery and couldn’t be carried around. But these days, mobile phones have opened a new world of possibilities. Observing in nursery schools, it is common to see children making pretend cell phones and then pretending to talk to each other on them. But what was once the land of make-believe has now morphed into reality. Children seem to have their own cell phones at ever younger ages.
The article cited above refers to a 2009 survey which showed that a majority of children who have a cell-phone get one by the time they turn 13. Perhaps that number has changed in the years since then, or perhaps it is a phenomenon of city living. But my own experience has been watching children as young as three or four, on the bus or train, with their own cell-phones. It is also not uncommon to see mothers give children and babies younger than that mom’s own phone to play with.
Such sights remind me of a cartoon that appeared when television first began to be pervasive (what my children used to refer to when they were young as “the olden days”.) The cartoon showed a baby on the floor crawling toward a light socket about to plug in the cord of a television set that was lying close by. The deeper meaning of the cartoon, as with the cell phone, is that technology is about to open a new, larger world for the baby or child. And as with other technological developments that have opened new worlds for children, new challenges for parents have opened with them.
On one level, the cell phone is just another technological gadget that children like to “play” with, and want because their friends may have one. On a more significant level, it is a way of being connected to others – the very thing that children pretend doing as part of their development. Particularly as children begin to work through the feelings aroused by emotional, as well as physical, separation from parents, pretend telephone talk serves a useful purpose.
The advent of the cell phone has moved both the need and the wish for connection from pretense to reality. In today’s world, as children increasingly are involved in activities away from their parents, it is often the parents who – even more than their children – want the reassurance of staying connected. Many parents require their children to call in at specified times as a way of making sure that all is well. On the other hand, for some children “calling mommy” may be too easy a way of dealing with a situation that they might do better having to figure out how to deal with in another way.
The article referred to offers a useful discussion of various phones on the market and the kinds of controls that are available. The author emphasizes the importance of parents understanding the technology and writes, “It’s like learning a new language – and remember that kids learn new languages much faster than adults do.” Her point is that phones today, as with the computer, offer opportunities for exploration that parents may not want available to their children.
All of the discussion seems to point to the question of controls – the difficult question that arises in many areas of children’s behavior and increasing independence. The focus on controls inevitably leads to questions about enforcement and compliance – a prescription for the confrontations parents dread. So no matter how new the technology, the issue for parents remains the same: how to stay in charge as parents. Too often, this question gets answered with punitive measures or parent capitulation, neither of which is constructive or satisfactory.
Actually, establishing guidelines for our children’s use of cell phones really starts early on when children begin to assert their own wishes, which often differ from what the parents have in mind. It is then that we can demonstrate to our children respect for what they want even when they can’t have it. In that way we also teach them to respect our wishes, remembering that this is a process and that learning takes time.
Rebellion along the way is part of the process, but a revolution in technology does not have to become a revolution at home.