The Surprising Way My Son Earned His Smartphone

“But Mom, everybody else has one!“ What parent hasn’t heard that line a trillion times? But no mind, even after much begging and pleading, I stuck to my guns and said no.

The item in question was a smartphone—and my 10-year-old son wanted one, desperately. Most of his friends had one, but I didn’t think he was ready. This was the boy who often left sweatshirts, jackets, and hats behind. But he begged, he pleaded. Almost daily. I didn’t know it at the time, but his actions were just like many of the kids who responded to Highlights 2015 State of the Kid (SOTK) survey. When asked how they get their parents to give them something they want, 32% responded they beg or plead.

Like many parents, I want to give my son things, and that sometimes includes indulging him with the latest gadget or toy. But generally I’m the type of parent who would rather reward my child with something he wants, especially if it’s something substantial, rather than simply give it for the asking. Apparently many parents behave similarly, as 44% of survey respondents said their parents told them they had to earn what they wanted.

Putting cost aside, I wanted my son to understand the responsibility of having this phone. I wanted him to earn it, not simply get it because he asked or because he did a particular chore or because everyone else had one.

One morning in the shower, I had an idea. If he wanted this phone so badly, I would challenge him to articulate why he wanted it. My son is not a writer. He struggles with anything he has to write, whether a school report or a thank-you note. But if he could put words on a page to convince me, I could be persuaded. According to the kids in our survey, a number of parents feel the same way. Explaining to parents why they wanted something was cited by 13% of the SOTK survey respondents when asked how they get their parents to buy them something. So, I thought, why not try?

When I first approached my son with this idea, he didn’t take to it well at all. But two days later, I had a paper in my hand. It wasn’t good (okay, since I’m an editor, I may have been more critical than most parents), so I gave it back to him with lots of comments. He tried a second time. It wasn’t much better. As I appreciated his effort, we began a dialogue about persuasion. Then he came back to me, this time with a very cleverly written “Top 10 List”—certainly not an essay, but I applauded his creativity and persistence. And, he was able to articulate his reasons for having a phone, in a way all his own. It made me proud.

Am I an indulgent parent? I could argue either way, as he was going to get a smartphone at some point. Instead, I would prefer to think of myself as an approachable parent—one who is willing to listen to my child to a point (60% of kids who responded to our survey said their parents were easygoing; I would put myself in that camp). More importantly, I think (or hope) that I taught my child a life lesson—that if you want something badly enough, you need to work for it. As in life, no one hands you something just because you want it.

Sylvia Barsotti

Sylvia Barsotti, mom to Luke, Juliana, and David, is the Director of Parenting Editorial for Highlights.