MISTAKE: I didn’t realize I was setting a precedent when I haphazardly set iPhone rules for my oldest child.

Oldest children are often different from subsequent kids. Don’t believe me? Read this. And this.

It’s important to recognize this likelihood so you can avoid making the same mistake I did when I gave my oldest child her first cell phone.

I was a rookie. I’d only had an iPhone myself for a couple of years, and I'd sent my first text just six months earlier. (I didn’t realize the depths of my ignorance about all things technological until much later—but that’s a mistake for another post.)

Be prepared

My preparation for giving my first child her first smartphone amounted to little more than doing a Google search for “Giving your kid their first phone.” I found some sample contracts (here's a good one), and skimmed some suggestions for setting up House Rules.

I don't recall reading any of it in depth. I was busy with other things, and, frankly, my ignorance of smartphones was so deep that a lot of the helpful suggestions I read were akin to white noise. I didn't know what I didn't know.

The actual phone purchase and exchange went smoothly: I got a new phone and handed my old phone to my daughter (who was 11-years-old at the time). I may have given her some advice along the lines of, “Don’t take naked photos of yourself and text them to people,” which she likely did not find helpful. I may have printed out one of the contracts I found. I think I suggested she should pay for part of the bill. Then I realized that because we’ve never managed to make any sort of allowance program stick, she had no possible income from which to contribute... so I moved that idea into the “implement down the road” pile.

I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

And it worked. Just like when my second daughter came out of the womb a naturally terrific sleeper, but I convinced myself that she was sleeping through the night due to good parenting.

The problem

My oldest daughter is a stereotypical oldest child. She’s cautious, conscientious, and brimming with self-control. She didn’t need me to tell her not to text naked selfies.

But... her younger sister is a different child altogether. She's is every bit as much a middle child as her sister is an eldest.

I quickly realized the rules I put in place for our oldest child (what rules?) were not going to work for her sister. The problem at that point was something any parent with more than one kid can appreciate.

It boiled down to a single word: precedent.

When one kid gets a phone at 11, you can bet all subsequent children will expect—nay, demand!—a phone when they turn 11. “That’s how we do it in our family,” they will assume whether or not you’ve consciously decided that’s the case.

And, just like that, whatever rules you put in place for the first kid are now your House Rules. By default.

With my lack of attention the first time around, I'd inadvertently sent the message that the children in our house would get a smartphone when they turned eleven with virtually no strings attached.


Learn from my mistake

Before you hand your oldest child a phone, take more time than you can spare to think hard about the rules you set for that phone. These are not the rules you want in place for your first child, specifically. Instead, they should be the rules you want for your most “spirited” child. Once you figure out how far any child currently living under your roof is likely to take things—and what kind of rules would prevent that from happening—then you're ready to outline some formal House Rules. Start as you mean to go on, as The Baby Whisperer once said.

What sort of things should you consider?

It's hard to imagine how the 14-year-old version of your current, cuddly, 8-year-old will even use a phone let alone anticipate how he might mis-use a phone. But it's worth the psychic energy to try, because the net-savings in anxiety can be great.

So think about:

  • Where in the house can the smartphone go? (Bedroom? Dinner table?)
  • What is the process for downloading new apps and does the child need parental approval for purchases? (HINT: The answer to that last question should be an emphatic "Yes" for any child who is not gainfully employed.)
  • What hours and/or days of the week is the smartphone available for use?
  • What happens if the phone is lost? Do you replace it and if so who pays for the replacement?
  • What's the catch for having a parent-provided smartphone? In our family one of these requirements is having Find My iPhone installed (to be used by parents to find either the phone itself or the child who's attached to it by the thumbs).
  • What are the consequences when (we're realists here, so it's "when" and not "if") a rule is broken?

As a side measure, I’d also suggest something I learned in a parenting class years ago. When you define fairness as “everyone in the family gets what they need” instead of “everyone gets exactly the same device/experience/set of expectations” you’re setting yourself up for good things down the road.

Kids are different—they're different from each other and they're different at 10 than they are at 14. Recognizing that, and realizing what it means for you as a parent, is a good lesson to learn before you really need it.