Do you remember when your child was just learning to walk? Or perhaps when they learned to turn a screwdriver? 🙂 (Maybe that was just our kid.)

Sometimes we forget that kids are, well, just kids. We forget that when they are learning something new, they still need baby steps. Just like when they first learned to crawl or to walk. In those exciting moments we are right there, encouraging them when they fall down and cheering them on until they figure it out.

Learning to walk is a process. Even if your child was one of those babies that learned to walk in one day, there was so much growth that happened over a year to prepare them for that moment.

As our kids get older they become more self-sufficient and we tend to expect more of them. Sometimes we forget to give them the encouragement and support they need to learn about life one baby step at a time.

So, how does learning to walk have anything to do with learning how to be responsible with a cell phone? The similarity is this: as parents, we have a choice to be positive, encouraging, and to give our kids a chance to figure out cell phones one step at a time.

It is common for parents to discuss a few rules, sign a contract, and then hand over a phone with limitless capabilities, not fully understanding the situation at hand. (I get it!) But are we fully aware of where that smartphone can take our kids? We are giving them the world.

Just like when our kids were learning how to walk, we can let the privilege of using a cell phone evolve as our children grow and mature into young adults. Today we want to share a gradual four-phase process process to help us—and our children—gradually develop the skills necessary to be smart with cell phones.

Remember that no one knows your child or your situation better than you. So while this model is a good place to start, you can make modifications as necessary and always invite dialogue so neither you nor your child is surprised by what’s happening on their phone.

Step One: Start with a Feature Phone

A feature phone (sometimes called a flip phone) is a great way to ease your child into the responsibility of managing a cell phone. Our teen has this one. It’s very basic! As in, if it gets lost or dropped, no one panics. If you are looking for the next step up in quality, you might check out one of these: LG-B740, Samsung Rugby 4 B780A, or LG-450, as an alternative. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Your child can call you, text you, and take pictures with the phone our teen has.  The photos are low quality, so keep a small digital camera around for camps or field trips. I know—old school! We have this one.

Note: If you are starting a cell phone with an older, responsible teen, you might jump straight to a smart phone and skip the feature phone altogether. That will probably make perfect sense at that age, but you can still ease into it gradually, limiting social media or certain games or apps if that feels right. Listen to your gut.

Step Two: Transition to a Bare-Bones Smartphone

After your child has demonstrated responsibility with a feature phone and is ready for more, you can graduate to a smartphone with very limited capabilities. Your child can email, text, call, and take photos. And you can also include other useful things such as: a calculator, an alarm, music, etc. Think useful at this stage. Our kids will often use the metronome app on our phones for practicing the piano. I consider that a useful tool. Still no games and no social media at this point.

Step Three: Add a Few Non-Social Media Apps

When you determine the time is right, you and your child sit down together and evaluate a few games or apps they might be interested in using and allow them to download them to their phone. In your tech agreement (we’ll share ours soon!), make sure you include guidelines about not downloading apps without your permission and another guideline letting them know you you will be checking their phone periodically. Still no social media.

Step Four: Add Social Media

Social media is the last thing to appear on the phone. I promise you will not regret waiting on this. Many adults are still learning how to handle social media (including me), so unleashing this on a teen without a fully developed prefrontal cortex is not a good idea. There will be responsible teens who will be able to handle it earlier than others, and in future posts we’ll talk more about how we determine when the time is right. For now, just know that social media is powerful, and we need to prepare our children to use this power for good. Note: We’ve included a unit on social media in our Family Think Tank.

After reviewing these four steps, I hope you can see that giving our kids cell phones doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing event. As parents, we can give our kids the scaffolding they need to build healthy phone-use habits. And part of that scaffolding is carefully phasing in the amount of information and phone capabilities they have access to. By taking cell phone baby steps, our kids can gain the skills to tackle whatever new technology comes their way.

How have you helped your child learn to responsibly use a cell phone? What strategies have you put in place to help your child gradually ease into cell phone ownership?

Tell us in the comments below!

*Note: There are all kinds of monitoring software and apps, which we will be covering in other posts, but at the end of the day the best monitor out there is you—the parent. And that is the most important place to start.