Just a couple of weeks ago, we hit a big milestone in our family–our youngest son turned 16. This was a special birthday because it marked a finish line as well as a starting line for a very important aspect of our family dynamic, because (cue the confetti) he received/earned his very first smartphone. We now have four iPhones in our home, I can hardly believe it.
For us, giving a smartphone is a BIG DEAL. It’s not something we would bestow as parents without a lot of thought, prayer, advice, conversation, and a big dose of courage. Our son’s school friends held to a common sentiment regarding the gift: “It’s about TIME!” While his friends from church, all of whom have had to go a slower road of their own in regard to technology, seemed to not-so-secretly hope their parents might follow our lead.
It does kinda stink to be the last kid to get a cool piece of technology. I get that. But what gives us great joy as parents is watching our son make it to that finish line without resentment and bitterness. He has been patient and understanding, which was largely helped by the many friends he had who were in the same boat.
It certainly wasn't easy to wait longer than most for this level of access to personal technology. Our son had some great years of training with basic features on a Gabb phone, an innovative first-to-market solution perfect for desperate parents like us. He learned how to not respond to the group chat when a one-on-one text to help a friend be kind was more appropriate. He learned to charge his phone, keep track of it, and always answer mom’s texts and calls. Most importantly, he did not become addicted to his phone, social media, games, or pornography during these years of training.
(Side note: I don’t know if I can adequately express my appreciation for the dads at Gabb Wireless who were crazy enough to start this company, competing with the tech giants. They had the vision to offer a simple phone, and their innovation sparked a whole new momentum for "safe tech" that is saving kids from “too much access, too soon.” They will forever have my respect and gratitude.)
When our son first started using his Gabb phone, he was 13 with far fewer responsibilities in life, and none that required technology. Over the years, that did change. Volunteer schedules at church are all online, communication for clubs at school is found on apps, and it really would help him to be able to look up his checking account balance. We understood technology could make life easier.
But we also wanted him to develop something that technology can’t really help with–endurance. So we didn’t want to transition too soon.
A Tool, not a Toy
During the past year, we could see the need for him to learn to manage some of his responsibilities with greater efficiency. As a mom, I certainly was ready to stop getting all of the notifications on my phone for his tasks and reminders. We felt it was important for him to see this step in light of his own growth and transition to manhood, so we tied it to him passing the test for his driver’s permit. It felt important for him to know this is a “becoming an adult” kind of tool, something that is not meant for childhood. It's not a toy.
We went a similar course for our first son, though our only “training opportunity” at the time was a stupid flip phone, and let me tell you, that was not nearly as helpful. When he got his first smartphone, we still had a lot to get him up to speed on. It was a very bumpy ride that first year as we helped him understand how to use it well (thanks to Bark, a lifesaver in that season). Of course, the phone was locked down with few fun things to do on it, but it just seemed like we had to address things frequently. The process of training him on his phone felt very similar to teaching any kid to drive… we knew it was necessary, but man-oh-man was it stressful.
This time around, it has felt very different. When we gave our youngest son his phone on his 16th birthday morning, I can honestly say I had no sense of dread. I knew he was ready for the next phase, though it surely will have its own triumphs and tragedies. We aren’t aiming for perfection, we are aiming for growth.
The Bottom Line
What is my point here? I guess it’s this: if at all possible, unless it is entirely past tense and your teen already has a smartphone, START WITH A TRAINING PHONE. Now you have several to choose from, and there’s bound to be one that will fit your family’s needs and values. Also, we don’t really want to tell parents what age they should consider giving their kid a phone (even a training phone) but let me just say that we must resist the tide of begging and pleading pre-teens because it is good for them to learn how to wait for important milestones. So, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
I feel really thankful that I’m not the mom of triplets or anything. We got one kid through three years of smartphone training, and now we are starting on the second one. We needed that time in between the two kids to learn how to navigate the rough waters of internet-in-the-pocket.
I am so excited to watch my son learn how to use this new responsibility in a way that honors God, others, and his own sense of purpose. The way you finish one season is the way you start the next... here we go!