We got an overwhelming response from our newsletter readers when we posed the question: What rules do you have for cell phone use for your child?

Many parents wrote that they wanted their children to have a cell phone for their peace of mind, and for emergency use. Letting a child have a cell phone while setting ground rules for its use is a good way to teach kids to be responsible, these parents said. Monitoring cell phone use and avoiding large bills can be a problem, but here are some solutions from our readers:

Buy a prepaid plan or a plan with programmable features

That way you won’t be stung with bills, like one parent was, for “$300 worth of music downloads.” With a prepaid plan, you are limited to a certain number of minutes. Some service providers will let you convert an old cell phone into a “pay as you go” phone, which can be a big cost savings.

Other phones, such as the Firefly, have programmable features. A California parent wrote:

“The great thing about this phone is the pre-programmable features that can only be accessed with a pin number that I choose. My daughter can only send and receive calls to and from people that I approve first.”

Set the ground rules

When you make the rules, you give your child much-needed limits and consequences for not following the rules. As a parent in Indiana wrote:

“The rules in my house regarding cell phones and our teens are: They are to be turned off by 8 p.m. When you are in the house, call your friends on the house phone. Your cell phones are not your personal telephone line. They are to be used for emergencies and for after-school activities.”

A parent in Florida wrote:

“My #1 rule for my son who is 11 and just started middle school is no matter who you are on the phone with, if I am calling you, you need to answer otherwise your phone privileges will be revoked. My #2 rule is that when he gets to and at the end of school he calls me at work to check in with me. He has the phone strictly for safety reasons. If he has an emergency, I want him to have access to me at all times.”

Setting the rules can also aid in teaching a child money management and responsibility, as well as a sure-fire way to get kids to do their chores. A parent in California offers these rules:

“My 12-year-old wanted a cell phone in the worst way! Not wanting to get involved in a contract, I made a deal with her. If she paid for a non-contract cell phone herself, from her saved money, I would buy the minutes in exchange for household chores. That way, she is responsible for her phone, and its usage, and is learning the value of hard work. Also, she still has a curfew on when and where she can use the phone. It’s a win-win, and has worked out well for us. She is using her phone responsibly, and learning valuable lessons as well!”

Text-messaging can be a hidden cost, so it’s a good idea to set rules around this feature, and to be mindful of the school’s rules about cell phone use, too, as suggested by this Connecticut mom:

“My 12-year-old son and I share a Cingular family plan. There are a few rules we follow:

  1. When home, use the land line.
  2. There will be absolutely no text messaging! This is the real cost with cell phones.
  3. Cell phones are not allowed to be used in school. (Many Connecticut schools have banned cell phones while school is in because it is easy to store answers to test questions.)”

Many parents find that equipping a child with a cell phone makes after-school pickups more convenient. As a parent in California wrote, it can also serve as a lesson in responsibility:

“I purchased a cell phone for my 15-year-old son because he is in after-school sports and practice never ended when it was supposed to. We bought a phone with prepaid minutes to avoid surprises at the end of the month. We buy a $20-card each month. If he runs out of minutes, he needs to buy minutes with his own money. If he doesn’t use his own money and is out of minutes, he waits for us to pick him up when we think he might be out of practice. Since he doesn’t like to wait it has worked very well.”

Several parents felt that kids should only have cell phones when they are old enough to drive. At that age, they are also old enough to take responsibility for the bill. A mom in Illinois wrote:

“Rule #1. You do not get your own cell phone until you are driving. Not open for negotiation. Rule #2. You may borrow mine in time of need, (ride home after game, etc.) Rule #3. Any extra charges, you pay.”

Communicate with your child and make sure she is responsible

A Michigan mom writes:

“I think proper communication is key to a child using a cell phone. They are not at all toys. My daughter understands that her cell phone is strictly for emergencies and to check up with me or her dad when she’s out with a friend. I think they are a great idea as long as the child is responsible! If a child isn’t able to be responsible, then they should wait until they are more mature to have a cell phone of their own.”

Are cell phones really necessary for kids?

Some parents felt that buying a cell phone would just be giving in to the latest fad and would take away from good old face-to-face communication, as well as old-fashioned play time. Here’s what a few parents had to say:

“Children under the age of 16 do not need to have their own cell phones. It is more important that they learn to communicate through speaking directly face to face with others, and writing letters to friends and family members. These are basic life skills that must be taught, practiced, developed, encouraged, and promote by parents, family members, and teachers alike. It is an essential and critical discipline that must be established early on in their childhood.”

“I also believe that it can become an excuse for some adults to somehow think their children are safe running around everywhere unsupervised by adults just because they have a cell phone. No, you can’t lock them up the rest of their life, but you can hold on loosely. Let’s not let this technology age take away bonding with our children. No PS2 game, computer game, cell phone or any electronic device can take the place of true family interaction. Let’s get back to basics & core values before it’s too late. Our kids need us!”

“I know where my children are at all times and if they are not there they are grounded; kids with cell phones are just the latest fad and the cell phone companies are making a mint off of the parents.”

“I think our society is in a big hurry to give children adult responsibilities and adult privileges. If we rush into giving them everything as children, what is there to look forward to as they get older? I’m a firm believer in giving our children age-appropriate responsibility a little bit at a time, not throwing it at them all at once.”

“I think it is a waste of good time to be blabbing on a cell phone while they could be outside playing all day.”

If you decide not to get your child a cell phone, be forewarned that you may be in for an ongoing battle, as this parent in Florida commented:

“My 7-year-old is already wanting a cell phone because of all the advertising hype. I will not buy him one but he will continue to drive me nuts about it anyway.”

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Updated: March 18, 2016