Care and Feeding

Is It Crazy to Buy My 6-Year-Old a Phone?

Hear me out.

A kid in a hat and buttoned-up shirt points a finger at his cellphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mother, sole parent to a 6-year-old son. From the time he was 3 months old to 9 months old, I worked 12-hour shifts in a hospital. Since he was just over 1 year old, I’ve worked a regular 9–5 job and I’ve taken him to day care or school in the morning and picked him up every evening and have been home to put him to bed.

Next month I will be starting a new job, working 12-hour night shifts in a hospital two hours away from our home. (I’ll commute and will sometimes stay up there without him.) He seems prepared for me not being with him overnight sometimes and not seeing me for a couple days, but he recently asked for a phone of his own so we could exchange messages. My first thought was this was ludicrous—he’s 6! But honestly, it isn’t that much to add a line onto my plan, and he could have my old phone, and I really would like to send him emoji or GIFs to let him know I’m thinking of him even while I am working.

I want him to feel like he can reach out to me without needing to ask his grandparents or sitter to use their phone. We’re super tight, and being apart will be hard on both of us at first. Am I crazy to give my 6-year-old a cell phone? I’d have rules and parental controls on it, and he would mostly just have access to it when I’m working. I just can’t get past the feeling that this isn’t necessary and I am freaking out about this big change in our life. Can you talk me down and offer some alternatives, or reassure me that I’m not being ridiculous and I shouldn’t care if someone else thinks it is ridiculous for a 6-year-old to have a phone if it works for our family?

—Call Me, Maybe

Dear CMM,

In short, no, you’re not crazy to give your 6-year old a phone of his own, and, no, you shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks about the choices that work for your family!

Your work is tough, your schedule demanding, your son young, and your relationship with him deeply important to both of you. If it makes your day a little better to exchange Spongebob GIFs when you’ve got some downtime, do it. It’ll be a gift to provide your kid this means to stay close to his mom, and it’s harmless. Good luck with everything!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My brother died over 10 years ago, and despite my best efforts, I have not been able to maintain a close relationship with his widow or their daughters. My niece Molly is now married with two young kids. She’s a stay-at-home mother who practices attachment parenting, which as far as I can tell means that she never leaves the children even for a moment. I recently learned through my mother (Molly’s grandmother) that when the children are old enough, she plans to home-school them. Our family is full of teachers, and we all know that this is a bad idea. My niece attended university for two years but dropped out when her father died, so she is not a great candidate to be a teacher. The children also need to be socialized with other kids and learn how to function in society.

My daughter is the same age as Molly and they’ve always been very close. She has spent a lot of time with Molly and her kids, so I tried to convince my daughter to talk some sense into Molly. She will not hear it and always shuts the conversation down. She says it’s not her business and she’s not going to criticize other people’s choices. I asked her if this is what she would want for her own kids and she said no. I asked her if she loves Molly’s kids and she said yes. I don’t understand why, then, she won’t intervene on their behalf, especially with something as serious as their education.

Can you help me convince my daughter (or Molly herself) that these children need to go to proper school? I’m very worried they will grow up to be socially stunted with no real education.

—Auntie Anti–Home School

Dear AAHS,

You must know already that the simple fact of biology does not permit the intimacy you’re assuming.

Parents have the right to parent as they see fit, and few care to solicit input from even beloved extended family members. Your daughter is quite right; the way Molly chooses to raise her children is none of her business, and it’s certainly not any of yours.

I understand it can be difficult for families to stay close—especially across a generational divide. Perhaps you ought to try to build a relationship with your niece and her family. You cannot do this if your only agenda is to interfere in Molly’s parenting style. You should assume that you’ll never, ever be able to do that, or even raise the question with her. But you might find it nice to have more of a relationship with this branch of the family. If you find that uninteresting, that reveals, I think, that your only motive here is to exert control over a situation that has nothing to do with you.

If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am six months pregnant with our first child, and my husband and I are trying to work out what we’ll do when we exhaust our collective four months of parental leave and return to work.

I’m of the opinion that day care is our best option. However, he doesn’t want to send our child to day care before the age of 6 months. Because I work a regular day job and he works a swing shift (afternoon to evening), originally we were hoping my mother-in-law could take care of the baby for a few hours in the middle of the afternoon when we’re both at work. However, his mom recently hurt her hand and I’m concerned that caring for a baby might require overexerting herself. His dad will also be completing a couple of major surgeries within the next several months, and his mom will already be busy taking care of him. My own mom has previously made it clear that she won’t have the energy to care for an infant.

As an alternative, my husband suggested that he adjust his work hours to even later in the day so he could work after I come home and then he would take care of the baby when I’m at work. This would mean I’d be working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then caring for the baby from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. He’d have the opposite schedule, and we’d split the time between 1 a.m. to 8 a.m.

I’m skeptical we can make this work for two months, but do you think this is doable for the short term? If not, what do you recommend I say to help change his mind? We can afford day care, and my husband’s main concern is that the baby would not get enough attention there, which may lead to developmental issues.

—Day Care Dilemma

Dear Day Care Dilemma,

Congratulations! A new baby upends life in so many ways that I think it’s natural and common to try to strategize in advance, to have plans and time tables. Then the baby comes and with it, often, the realization that the cart is firmly in front of the horse.

I think you’re wise to have some plan, but do be sure it’s a realistic one. The scenario you describe—two months of near–round-the-clock work and parenting—sounds doable but tough to me. Is it possible for your and your husband to take parental leaves consecutively rather than simultaneously? That would still be a tall order, but it might buy you a little more flexibility.

Of course, the real problem here is that you think day care sounds like a good solution and your husband does not. This is something you should talk through more. I wonder if you might not want to go visit some day cares. There are wonderful places out there where the kids are loved and stimulated and very well-cared-for, and your husband’s idea that day care correlates to developmental delay is … nonsense.

If you found the right provider, that could change everything for both of you, even if you only relied on them part time. Day care is not the best option for every family—indeed, a part-time babysitter might be a good compromise for yours. But try to have an open conversation, based in fact and not conjecture. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old, Sean, is generally well-behaved and cooperative. He has good social skills, makes friends easily, and gets along well with most kids in his day care. They’re all good kids and I’ve come to genuinely like them—except for one. (There is always one.)

Donald is a year younger. He bites, hits, and throws raging temper tantrums significantly more frequently than any other child I’ve met. Donald takes other children’s toys and throws them over the fence. Most recently, Donald has started to grab the girls by the crotch. I learned this the hard way when Sean came home from day care one day and grabbed me there as casually as he would tell a joke.

It led to a long talk about respecting people’s bodies, and my son hasn’t repeated this since. Sean is oddly drawn to Donald. Despite being older, he copies a number of Donald’s behaviors, seemingly to impress him. I’ve been careful to not forbid this friendship as I didn’t want to make it more enticing, but I have gently directed him to play with other children.

Sean has picked up on my dislike of Donald and has said unprompted he wouldn’t play with him anymore. I know they still play together, because I get reports of their joint misbehaviors. I hate to pass the buck on my child’s misdeeds, but outside of the days where he sees Donald, everyone is always full of praise for Sean’s behavior. I should continue to bite my tongue about Donald, right? I know I can’t stop them playing together, but is there anything I could say to Sean to get it through to him that it’s OK to like Donald but not OK to behave like him?

—Bad Influence

Dear BI,

I think you’re right—there’s always one kid in a classroom or on the playground you’d just as soon avoid, and it’s often the case that this kid draws yours like a flame does a moth. And it’s true too that the kid who’s naughty is almost always someone else’s.

Sometimes when we venture out into the world with our kids we have to confront the uncomfortable fact that our task as parents is to prepare our kids for, well, the world, with all its unsavory people, discomfiting ideas, and other difficulties. It sucks! But it’s the job.

First, I’d ask myself if you’re not overreacting to Donald. Then I’d remember that he’s a kid too, and a younger one at that. And there are two sides to every story! Just as you might see him as boisterous and uncontrollable, Donald’s parent might see Sean as a pest or copycat.

You can’t dictate your son’s tastes—in food, in music, in people. All you can do is be sure he’s exposed to broccoli, and Mozart, and well-behaved playmates, and reinforce, over the years, the values you want for him. So I think the trick is teaching Sean bodily consent without condemning any of his playmates. If Sean tosses some other kid’s toy over the fence, I think you ought to point out that this isn’t how you want him to handle himself. You can do this without bringing up how anyone else behaves. For now, Sean’s probably too young to counter with But Donald does it, just as, for now, you can continue to redirect him toward other playmates.

But I promise you that Sean will someday encounter some other kid of whom you don’t wholly approve. The key is to focus on the kid you’re raising, not the Donalds of the world.

—Rumaan

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