Amy Suardi wrote an interesting post about children and cell phones on the Frugal Mama blog today. I wrote earlier this fall about our decision to give Tim a cell phone now that he is 11. Tim didn’t ask for one; what he asked for was more afterschool freedom in the form of going to the library or the school’s “homework club” after dismissal, and when Rick upgraded his phone, it made sense to give the cast-off to Tim.
He doesn’t particularly like to talk on the phone, nor do his friends, so I wasn’t concern that he would misuse the privilege. It’s just helpful for making last-minute changes of plans, and eliminates problems caused by miscommunications or other complications that can result in missed connections, such as the day I told Tim he could go to the library for an hour after school and he arrived there to discover the library was closed.
As Amy points out, a lot of people equate cell phones with accelerating the growing-up process for kids. Although this hasn’t been the case for us, in that Tim’s cell phone is strictly a practical aid, there are other ways in which the debate about acceleration of childhood raises questions for me. For example, my 7-year-old loves nail polish, and I have no particular problem with her putting it on occasionally, especially since it’s something she often does as a social activity with a friend, but one of her closest friends is allowed only toenail polish and not fingernail polish. What is the message I am sending her by allowing nail polish? Is it that she has to add artificial color and shine to her appearance in order to look pretty, that what nature bestows on us is not enough? Or is it just that painting is fun, whether it’s on paper or on your nails?
Earlier this week Holly handed me her Christmas wish list, which included the line item “makeup kit.” This, I admit I balk at. Should a 7-year-old be taking an interest in makeup? But upon further reflection, I can see how a case could be made that letting her play with makeup at home wouldn’t be so different from letting her play dress-up, which she and a few of her friends do by the hour. I wouldn’t let her go out in public wearing blush or lipstick any more than I’d let her go out in my grandmother’s floor-length yellow silk gown, but in a way, both seem to me like reasonable ways of practicing the fun of masquerade. I’ll probably veto the makeup idea simply because unlike silk gowns, makeup has the potential to damage rugs, countertops and other hard-to-clean household surfaces, but not because I’m convinced it’s inherently wrong for Holly to play with.
When Holly was five, she started asking to get her ears pierced, something she was finally permitted to do on her seventh birthday. Some of our friends were surprised we allowed this, but for me, the reason to say yes ultimately had to do with Holly’s reasons for asking. It wasn’t that she wanted to look like an adult; it was that she likes the way earrings look and she thought it would be fun to start collecting them. She’s allowed only stud earrings or tiny hoops, no dangling earrings, and I think they look pretty on her. Moreover, getting her ears pierced for her birthday seemed to me a far more satisfying gift for both value and timelessness than a toy or other object easily outgrown. (Holly’s case was also helped by the fact that when I asked our pediatrician for her advice on ear piercing, she responded, “You forget, I’m from a Hispanic background. My daughters had their ears done at nine months.”)
Maybe cell phones, nail polish and makeup all come down to the child’s intent in wanting them. As with so many things, the objects themselves have no intrinsic meaning regarding who should have them and when; the debate really emanates from how the kids perceive them or plan to use them. Is the value of a cell phone in its use for communicating last-minute changes of plans, like in our household, or is it for furtively getting in touch with friends while bypassing the oversight of parents? I heard a commentator on NPR recently speaking about the small but seemingly critical component of etiquette that has been lost now that kids can call each other directly. No more, “Hi, Mr. Hatch. This is Tim. May I speak to Cole?” now that Tim can reach Cole directly on Cole’s individual phone. When I was growing up, if you couldn’t handle the challenge of speaking politely to a friend’s parents on the phone when you called, you didn’t dare call. (But for counterbalance, I read an essay in which the writer described the unexpected joy that his wife’s cell phone brings him: now that her mother can call her directly rather than through a house phone, he is forever free from the obligation of making awkward small talk with his mother-in-law.)
So in a way, it comes down to a riddle. When is a cell phone not a cell phone? When kids want it to send inappropriate pictures, offensive text messages or arrangements for meet-ups they shouldn’t be having, I suppose. When are clothes and makeup not just clothes and makeup? When girls Holly’s age want to feel and act like teenagers, rather than just like children in costume. If Holly wanted to dress like Britney Spears, it would bother me. But she doesn’t: she wants to wear my grandmother’s long silk ball gown. That’s not about growing up fast; it’s about playing make-believe. And as I see it, there’s nothing about make-believe that’s going to do her any damage at all. And Tim has a cell phone he didn’t even particularly want so that he can let us know when the library is closing early. Every decision comes within its own context, and parents learn to assess, evaluate and decide, one request at a time, over the course of many years.