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A story on ABC News has got a lot of attention lately. Maybe you saw it. A mother of a teenage boy presented a list of 18 rules for his new cell phone. Most of the buzz about this story was absolutely positive. So you might be surprised that I believe it’s based on a huge error in thinking.

The first rule this mother proposed is “It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you.” She implies that because she bought the phone she can dictate the terms of its use. Can you see the problem with that?

The problem is that this parent is basing her authority over her son’s behavior solely on her buying power and on her teen’s lack of buying power. She assumes that her child has no way of paying for a cell phone or cell phone service on his own and that he will never have that power. Obviously, this is a false premise. There is nothing more motivating to teen employment than telling a boy he is economically dependent on his mother (or father) and therefore mom (or dad) has unlimited power over him.

Parents must base their authority on something more profound than simple economics. It’s not that you make more money than your child. It’s that you have raised him with respect and expect him to repay that respect with respect for you. You expect him to follow your rules, not because you actually own his phone but because you’ve raised him to do what’s right.

This error in thinking predates cell phones by many decades. Parents have long tried to limit where there kids drove the family car by saying they paid for the gasoline or that they paid for the car itself. They’ve tried to control the sort of clothes teens wear by limiting clothes mom and dad were willing to buy.

It’s never worked with cars – teens buy their own and they buy their own gasoline. It’s certainly never worked with clothes. Just saving the babysitting money gets a teen plenty to spend on the very clothes her parents prohibit. Basing your authority on who pays is doomed to failure.

So I agree with this mom that laying down some ground rules for use of her child’s cell phone is a good thing to do. I suggest also that she make certain that she follows all these rules herself. Household rules have more impact if they apply to everyone in the household, not just the kids.

But this mom – like all of us – should be more confident that she is worthy of her parental authority. Parental authority is not something that can be bought.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.