Q: We’re at the point where we are planning to get a cellphone for our sixth-grader, but my spouse and I are trying to reinforce that it’s not a given and that she’ll need to earn our trust and demonstrate that she is responsible. We caught her in some small lies over the summer that we’ve said are preventing her from earning our trust. (Nothing serious, such as sneaking a book after lights-out and telling us she had finished a chore when she hadn’t.) She’s been really sharp with her younger sibling and picking on him more. Then there’s the back talk. Our challenge: Is there a way to reframe this idea of “earning a phone,” so it doesn’t seem as if we’re focusing on all the negative stuff she needs to stop doing (stop lying, stop back-talking, don’t be mean)? Or are we overthinking it?
A: There are many pieces of writing that can help you with this, as well as apps, trackers and software that can control, police and secure your daughter’s phone. Will these articles and software help you? Yes and no. As soon as you purchase and download one app, the tech has changed, and you’re playing catch-up. Trust me: You will never be ahead of the curve. We parents are lucky to even see the curve.
I’m instead going to answer the question you’ve asked me: “Is there a way to reframe this idea of ‘earning a phone,’ so it doesn’t seem as if we’re focusing on all the negative stuff she needs to stop doing (stop lying, stop back-talking, don’t be mean)? Or are we overthinking it?”
I love this question, because you’ve already pinpointed your exact problem: You are only focusing on the negative stuff. It is not as though your daughter is “ready or not” for a phone (although there are many considerations here). What we really need to consider is your expectations of her behavior.
You will also see leaps in maturity, the ability to be responsible, and an orientation toward justice and fairness. But lest you forget: Their prefrontal cortex (that part of your brain that keeps you making good decisions, even in the face of temptation and pressure) still has an “under construction” sign on it. So, for every awesome choice sixth-graders make, they will also sometimes succumb to sneaking (although sneaking a book doesn’t qualify as a problem to me), telling small (and sometimes big) lies, and taking their frustrations and snark out on innocent younger siblings.
Although no parent loves these behaviors — and, yes, they warrant a discussion and maybe a consequence — it is completely unreasonable to expect your tween to behave perfectly. And if perfection is the standard, is it applied to everyone in the family? Are you allowed to watch Netflix and eat cookies if you didn’t work out? Are you allowed to scroll on your phone after you snapped at your kids and rolled your eyes at your partner? Are you allowed to enjoy life after you made an honest mistake?
If I sound harsh, it’s because I want to drive home the point that expecting your daughter to never make mistakes, thus “earning” enough trust for a phone, is a fool’s errand. She won’t be able to do this because it’s impossible, and you will become the enemy.
Does this mean you shrug your shoulders and say: “Well, our daughter is sometimes rude, tells small lies and sneaks books. Oh, well. Let’s give her this small device attached to the Internet and wing it! It’ll be fine!” No. (However, I am still maintaining that sneaking books is not a problem.)
As her parents, you and your partner are absolutely within your rights to decide whether you think she is ready for a phone. This means stepping back and looking at the big picture. Overall, does she demonstrate good decision-making skills? Can she transition away from screens with some ease? Does she have a robust friend group or a strong friendship with one person? Does she seem to have some self-assurance around her feelings, even if they can be intense? Do the two of you have a communication style that is collaborative, respectful and boundaried? If the answer is mostly yes, then chances are good that she will rock and roll with a phone — and the rules that come with it — with all the fun and heartaches it brings.
On the other hand, if your daughter is showing patterns of lying, distancing herself from others, self-isolating, and being easily and frequently distracted, you may decide that you want to wait for time to do its work and hold off on the phone. This doesn’t mean you wait for her to be “perfect”; it means you cultivate a relationship with her such that, when the phone is ready for her use, you have a good working relationship with her. Mistakes will be made. Is your family ready to handle that with extreme threats? Or with collaboration and compassion?
Whatever you decide, please express unconditional love for your daughter. Especially now, you need to bridge the rolled eyes and small issues with, “We love you no matter what.” Walk with her and say: “We’ve noticed that the sassy tone has been happening a bit more than normal. Is there anything I can help you with? I’m happy to listen.”
Opening the door to her feelings and being alongside her will build trust and your relationship; expecting her to be perfect and holding the phone out as a carrot will lead to resentment and (more) sneaking. When in doubt, always choose the relationship. This rough tween patch will ease, and you will want your relationship with her to be strong, loving and predictable, not conditional and fleeting.
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