The topic of kids and phones is one that most families can’t avoid. Some children may view getting their first phone as a rite of passage that accompanies a certain birthday or entering a specific grade (middle school being the most popular time for the begging and bargaining to begin). Other kids receive a smartphone at an earlier age, and it seems that very few make it to high school without their own phone number.
Regardless of your decision as to when your child can have a phone, the act of receiving one does not mean that your child will magically develop the basic skills necessary to communicate appropriately.
What do I mean by basic communication skills?
I mean the art of having a reciprocal conversation and using words (not text) to ask questions and obtain information.
I will date myself now and share that I grew up with a corded phone practically attached to the side of my head. Everyone I knew had a home phone, and it was typically answered when it rang. Before caller ID, you had to deal with the person on the other end of the line by listening, thinking, and responding. It didn’t seem hard, and kids learned from an early age to communicate on the phone by watching parents and other adults have verbal conversations that did not involve FaceTime or texting.
I'm officially going on record as saying this is a lost art. And maybe we’re moving toward a society where we don’t have to actually talk to each other all that often, but I think it’s important for kids to be able to interact and function using their voices.
If you can relate, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your kids will naturally learn these communication skills. As a parent, you have to go out of your way to make sure your child has opportunities to practice because technology makes it all too easy to side-step direct interaction and avoid voice-to-voice conversations.
So, when you grant your child the privilege of a smartphone, it’s important to make sure he or she knows how to do these three things:
Call to ask for information.
You can practice by taking the “long way around” once in a while and phoning a store or place of business to ask about their hours of operation. Better yet, choose something that’s important to your child, like a new piece of clothing, toy or sports equipment, and have them call the store to see if it’s available.
I can practically hear the naysayers shouting, “It’s all online now, you don’t ever need to do this stuff!” I get it, but when my daughter wanted a specific dress and needed it for the next day, she was paralyzed when the store’s online system wasn’t able to tell her which shop actually had the item. When I suggested she call the local stores to ask, I was in awe of the fact that she needed step-by-step guidance to do so. The punch line is, your child needs to be able to have a conversation with someone to ask for information because one day it may be the only option and it’s a skill worth developing.
Have a reciprocal conversation with someone who is out of sight.
When kids are used to texting, the pace of conversation is unnatural. You can respond when you want to and there’s no expectation of an immediate reply. When talking to someone, especially over the phone when facial expressions are out of the picture, it’s important for your child to remain engaged and keep pace with the discussion.
This takes practice, so encourage your kids to make phone calls to family members and even friends without activating a video option. I know this is not the norm, but it’s important for your child’s developing brain to create a script or road-map for having conversations that flow.
Respond to an unexpected caller.
I know that most of us as adults don’t answer the phone anymore unless we know who is calling. The last thing I want to do is spend time talking to a telemarketer! But, there will come a day when your child answers the phone and encounters an unexpected caller.
Make sure your son or daughter knows how to respond if someone dials his or her number by accident or if there is a telemarketer trying to sell something or offer a deal. Case in point, our home phone recently rang, one of my kids mistook the number and thought it was a family member calling and then struggled to navigate the conversation because it was not the person they expected.
What you would say if someone called and asked for “Jim” (who does not live with you). You would say, “Sorry, wrong number,” probably without hesitation. Most kids would not have a clue. So, even if there are very few opportunities for your child to practice this skill, give them the words to use if and when they need to communicate with an unexpected caller.
Sharing practical strategies that help parents rediscover joy in their children (even when someone's crying, the phone is ringing, and it smells like the house may be burning down)