Teenager, His Phone, The Canary


When my first born son turned 12 or 13 (I really don’t recall his exact age – frazzled parent brain the likely cause), I caved to his relentless requests for a cell phone. Invoking the enormous power of rationalization, I convinced myself that although a phone at his tweeny age is far from necessary, as a matter of convenience and safety it’s not a bad idea.

As telecom companies continue to dismantle and remove public pay phones owing to lack of use (and the disappearance of superheroes needing a place to change into costume), I wanted to provide Teenage Son with a way to communicate with me should the thought ever occur to him.

Adding him to my phone plan cost about $40/month, including tax, for a talk and text plan. At close to $500/year, this was not an inexpensive solution and definitely pricier than dropping the occasional 50 cents into a public pay phone.

Still, rationalization again came to the rescue; this was a safety issue, I insisted to myself. (Upon reflection, the matter of convenience was not weighty enough to justify payment so I went with safety, an issue no parent charged with caring for a baffling, still-under-construction teenage brain could ignore).



Must Have Data Plan, Must Have Data Plan

Then came more demands. Teenage Son said that his friends surf the web on their phone and he wanted to do the same, and that a talk and text plan is soooo yesterday.

“How much will it cost,” I ask? (my usual first question).

“I dunno.”

“How about you do the research and let me know what you come up with?”

“Dad, can’t you just get me a phone with a data plan.”

“It costs money.”

“So?” (translation: teenage brain believes Bank of Dad grows money on trees).

“Is it necessary to have data? Why isn’t the talk and text plan enough?”

“Because it isn’t.”

“Convince me why I should pay more money just so you can play on the Internet with your phone? Why isn’t it enough to use your computer for surfing the web?” (Granted, Teenage Son is presently at something of a disadvantage going up against Former Lawyer, me, who relishes constructive discussion based on sound reasoning, often interpreted by my children, as unfair argument. That said, my ultimate purpose was to have him think about his choices, to thoughtfully consider his own rationale for buying ‘stuff’ that he wants, and the price to be paid, whether financial, emotional and/or spiritual).

“All my friends have data on their phone.”

“You know the old, ‘everyone else has it so I should have it argument’, is nonsense, doesn’t work with me.”

“Why are you being so mean?!”

And he stormed out. Once I dusted myself off from the teenage accusation of meanness (translation: if you do not give me what I want, what I demand at this very moment, then you are at fault and you are mean), and once he calmed enough to remove his headphones so we could talk while he wasn’t listening to music, I offered to change his phone plan to include data on the condition that he pay for the increased cost.

As his eyes began the familiar bug out that precedes walking to his bedroom because it has the closest door that may be slammed (sound effects are hugely satisfying for teenagers), I gently explained why I dared to suggest he take financial responsibility. Though his facial expression and body language hinted of tuning out, he voluntarily chose to stay with me, physically anyway, so I continued talking about the importance of learning financial responsibility.




Planting Seeds

When Teenage Son was six, I took him with me to a local bank branch and opened an account in his name. While the account was connected to mine so I could monitor future transactions, I wanted to give him a sense of empowerment through having an account in his own name, knowing he would eventually manage his own money.

When the ABM card with his name on it arrived in the mail, we went to the bank the next day. Having quickly learned how to deposit funds through the ABM, he deposited $20, starter money from Dad. At this stage of the game, the point was not the money. The point was to teach him about money … it’s value, what it’s used for, how it’s managed responsibly, how to retain control over money so it is not a source of stress, or worse.

I figured that if we kept an open dialogue about money matters through childhood and teenage years, about what ‘stuff’ costs, about the fallacy of money trees (no, the Bank of Dad does not enjoy unlimited funds and, even if he did, strict withdrawal limits would be implemented), about choices we make in spending and saving, and the consequences of both, then little by little he would learn well the lessons of money management. And, in the process, he would retain a sense of freedom throughout his life when it comes to money matters, thereby avoiding the fate of becoming a Noble Consumer and Holder of Too Much Debt.

Then the cell phone fiasco hit. And I feared that Teenage Son would be turned into a consumer pod, the attachment to his cell phone being like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, portending a life where he was programmed to wanting the latest and greatest toy.

Still, difficult as it was, I kept the faith, choosing to believe that seeds planted way back when would sprout in time. Because the best I can do as a parent is to be patient, generous, and loving, and this includes setting boundaries.


Buds Flowering

Teenage Son is now seventeen and attached as ever to his phone. They go everywhere together: to school, out with friends, on bus rides, to the movies, and to bed (the mobile phone having replaced the blanket as a source of security). That said, I insist that he power off before falling asleep so as not to expose his still growing brain to a constant stream of radiofrequency energy.

Chewy Bit

Children may be more susceptible to cancer causing agents owing to a growing nervous system. As well, owing to their smaller heads compared to adults, children are subject to greater proportional exposure to radiofrequency radiation.

Though data from studies done to date do not clearly support higher cancer risk, when it comes to my kid’s brain, I prefer to minimize risk and err on the side of caution, especially knowing that at least some of these studies are funded by telecom companies who, shocking as this may be, could have been tempted to juice results in their favor.

For an exhaustive, hugely informative, eye-popping discussion of this issue, sit down for a lengthy read of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family, by Devra Davis – http://www.amazon.com/Disconnect-Radiation-Industry-Protect-Family/dp/0525951946.

And yes, Teenage Son has a data plan. The bonus for both of us is that he pays for it himself from wages earned working part-time at a grocery store during the school year and working full time during the summer.

Not only that but he has learned to live within a budget, knowing that I won’t bail him out. If he blows his paycheck on a cool leather jacket, and has drained his savings, then he has to wait until he receives his next paycheck before bouncing into a local café and ordering a giant, humungous caffeine and sugar laden concoction tailor made to mess with teenage mood swings.

Sure, I encourage him to set aside 25% of every paycheck into a savings account but he doesn’t always do so. That’s his call. And he has regretted his lack of savings each time his account dwindles close to zero. And that’s just fine; he’s still learning and he’s still a kid so no major harm done.

Eventually, he’ll get into the habit of saving. Eventually he’ll understand that just because he has money doesn’t mean he has to spend it. He’ll get that saving and investing money feels good and helps us take care of the practical necessities of life.

Though his lack of impulse control (read: under developed teenage brain Executive Functioning) may frustrate him at times, Teenage Son has been stepping up and trying to take responsibility. He’s learning that work has its rewards beyond the financial (not only getting out from under Dad’s thumb, but also the sense of controlling his world, the freedom to make independent decisions), that it takes effort to earn money so it’s best to value that effort and give good thought to how you spend, save and invest money. I’m proud of Teenage Son and ever more confident that those seeds planted years ago are taking root.