by Donna Cheng

smartify I was driving back to my mum’s place with my kids in the backseat when my older boy, just 9 years old then, asked me, “Mum, when will I be able to do that?”

“Do what, Darling?” I asked.

He pointed to a group of junior college students walking along the pavement leading to a mall nearby. My son wanted to know when he can go out with his friends, on his own, after school.

On another occasion my son asked, “When will you allow me to have my iPhone? I will only use it after I finish my work, Mum. We can discuss the rules. Can I have it please?”

My husband and I had our reservations about giving my son a smartphone, let alone an expensive iPhone. It is true that we have to set boundaries when we decide he is ready, but the policing seems like a constant battle for many parents I have spoken with. There seems to be a constant negotiation between parent and child. So for a long time, the easier option was the status quo – no smartphone, no iPhone.  Just use the phone in the school office if you need to reach us.  But I knew we couldn’t continue to hide in our cave much longer, the boy was a pre-teen, we had to deal with this situation soon enough.

The First Step on a Wider Path of Decisions (us) and Choices (them)

We finally did, out of necessity. I was travelling for three weeks and wanted to be able to keep in touch with my sons daily, and for them to still “chat” with me like they do when I’m around.  It’s been six months since both boys were given their smartphones. (Yes, the younger one got it when he was just 9 years old. Is there really a right age to give them a mobile phone? I am often asked this by friends)

Thankfully the ground rules were set and we have no issues with the phone interfering with our family meals or their homework so far. But I am prepared for the day when we have to renegotiate the terms of use when the older boy starts to question the restrictions we place on him.

What’s next?

He is already telling me about the complete freedom his friends have — they are allowed to use the phone late into the night, they can play games on it anytime, they can download games or any applications without needing to ask for permission! But he cleverly adds, “But I am not comparing. I am just saying.”

I may have crossed a small “milestone” in the life of every Singaporean parent — the giving of mobile phones to my sons, but I have yet to cross another. That is, when do I allow them to go out on their own with their friends? Or when will I allow them to play computer games at home. For now, we have not bought them an Xbox, PlayStation or a fancy laptop for gaming.

We take it a step at a time though I do admit we have had it easy so far. The boys have been raised to reason, and have not asked or pestered us for any of these, for now. They have, however, asked about going out with friends or hanging out in their homes. When do we let go? How much freedom should I give to my boys? These are questions every parent will ask, many times over as our children grow up. How do we navigate this? How do we negotiate with our children or should we even negotiate? Thankfully, I have had resources that help me make informed decisions (not perfect because every child is different) and I can learn from the experiences of other parents and experts who have spent time studying and working with children and teens.