The Cell Phone Contract

A while ago there was a piece that went viral about a mom who set up a cell phone contract with her son after she found him using it in ways she didn’t approve.  Although many parents lauded this move, many were also left with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, and rightfully so.  There were elements of this contract that just didn’t make sense if we’re raising our children to be independent and responsible in this world.

Does this mean that all contracts are bad?  No.  Far from it.

I know some people dislike the idea of contracts with kids in general, but I feel that there are areas they come in very handy, and also serve to teach your children about contracts more generally.  After all, do you actually read the fine print?  Do you make sure you understand what you sign?  Many of us don’t until we’ve been burned by having done done our due diligence.  Teaching our kids to think about all the issues before committing to something is not a bad thing, but there are four guidelines you should follow if you’re going to make it something that instills mutual respect instead of creating more problems.

First, the contract has to be decided upon before the child gets the phone.  You don’t give them a present then ask them to sign a contract.  That’s not a present at all – it’s coercion.  If you want to give your child a gift, give them a gift, which means no strings attached.  Yes, this means that cell phones or smart phones are not good ideas for gifts.  They are something else entirely.  Even if your child saves up and buys the phone and pays for the monthly air time, talk about what limits you’ll want to place when that actually happens.

Second, come up with the contract together.  This isn’t a one-sided deal, or rather it shouldn’t be.  Your child should be able to voice disagreement with you and you should be able to come to a compromise with your child.  For example, if you want to say no phone time until after homework is done, and your child objects, perhaps compromise on a trial run: If your child is able to get all homework done well with no problems, no staying up later, no grades slipping, then your child has proven him/herself to you. There will be some clauses that are non-negotiable (e.g., no using the phone and driving), but they should be few and far between.  Similarly, if either of you feels the need to renegotiate, have that option be open to discussion.  Discussion is what will keep your child from resenting you.

Third, be reasonable with the consequences of breaking the contract.  Sometimes in our effort to make sure our kids abide by something, we make the consequences seem so wrong and far-fetched that we either can’t live up to it or it’s unreasonable to do so and will lead to a lot of resentment from your child.  This should be easier to accomplish if you’re coming up with the contract together.  Remember that whatever consequence there is for breaking the contract should reflect what was broken and nothing more.  I would imagine one of the more serious ones would be breaking a no-texting-and-driving agreement in which case, no driving for an extended period is a fair consequence (especially when mixed with learning more on texting and driving).  Taking away prom night is not.

Last, consider taking on the same or an altered contract yourself.  As adults, our needs with cell phones will be different than that of our kids, but it’s wrong to assume that our use doesn’t affect our relationship and time with them (or that we may just have some bad habits of our own to break).  Just as you don’t dictate their contract without input, they don’t dictate yours, so again, a meeting of the minds is necessary and gives your child a chance to practice communication skills and the ability to think about the needs of others.  Sitting down to come up with rules for your own use is also a valuable way to give your child a voice in this while showing them that you aren’t holding them up to impossible standards, but rather standards that everyone is held up to (or should be).

At this stage, the actual contents of your contract are between you and your kid and will vary from dyad to dyad.  That’s it – four guidelines that should help you create a workable contract with your child that respects you, your child, and your relationship.


By Tracy Cassels

October 20, 2014