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The Big Lesson I Learned After Buying My Kid His First Cell Phone

I bought my son his first cell phone. How kids reacted to it — and how I reacted to their comments — taught me a big lesson.

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Like many, I’ve taken the infamous walk of shame. It usually started with beer, followed by shots of something, and ended with less than epic decision-making. The next morning, shame shuffling to the Waffle House, Walgreens, and home.

I went to college for eight years, and I took many hikes — shame, guilt, and disgust. It was always my bad, and I’m responsible for my saunters into self-destructive emotional landmines. Sadly, I’m also to blame for my son’s first walk of shame after  I bought him his first cell phone.

I thought owning a phone was a privilege. A perk that a child got because an employed parent used part of their paycheck to buy a thoughtful gift for their offspring. I didn’t realize that owning a phone is a birthright.

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read

When my son started immediate school, everyone, regardless of verticality, had a phone. I delayed his phone purchase with distraction strategies – buying portable tech toys like PlayStation DS. By fifth grade, it was either get him a phone or be visited by Children’s Services.

I went to the AT&T store. I cheerfully ignored the iPhone display and skipped to the back corner of the store. That’s a lesson I learned from years of shopping at kiddie retailers like Children’s Place. My preferred price range is next to the emergency exit or employees’ restroom.

There were a few brand-named phones but mostly generic models. I didn’t want the cheap dad label, so I bypassed the lowest-priced one. I bought the second-least-expensive, a disposable AT&T flip phone.

Next was the service contract. My son was too young for social media or porn, but he did have a couple of friends. I ordered a no-data plan with a 200-text limit. In my mind, a thoughtful fatherly gesture, albeit a thrifty one.

My son was in tech heaven. When he left for school, he proudly flaunted his new phone. By the time he came home, the AT&T was hidden in his backpack. I asked him why.

As it turned, kids on the school bus made fun of his flip phone. At lunch, his buddies discovered that he couldn’t stream YouTube, so they forced him to move to the losers’ table. The main office made a PA announcement proclaiming that my son had the cheapest phone in the building. Not really. But it was a full day of shame walking.

I felt some remorse. I considered going back to AT&T and upgrading to the third-least expensive phone. That would have meant more of my time and money. Instead, I did what any good psychologist does – empathize, rationalize, and distract.

“It’s no fun being laughed at – that must have been hard. I too would have been upset,” I said. “But a phone doesn’t make someone a winner or loser. It’s just a thing. Oh, by the way, there’s a new episode of SpongeBob. Want to watch?”

What I didn’t share was how proud I was of myself. It was one of those rare win-win father moments. The kid learned an invaluable life lesson, and daddy saved money.

Mark Shatz is a single-dad, psychologist, and author of Comedy Writing Secrets (3rd ed). His favorite pastime is watching his teenage son outsmart “proven” parenting techniques.