6 tips for parenting with an iPhone

Two Christmases ago, my husband and I agreed NOT to exchange gifts. So I was surprised when he handed me a small rectangular box. Could it be? We agreed that an extra data plan was too expensive, but there it was anyway: my very own iPhone 3G! I was lost for a few moments, admiring my new toy. I just couldn’t wait for some “alone time” to start playing, downloading apps and “optimizing.” Then a little voice piped up beside me. “What that, Mommy? You let me see it?” My 5-year-old son was already reaching for that perfect piece of tech in my lap. I almost panicked.

“No,” I said. “This is Mommy’s phone. It is NOT a toy. Are we clear?” If I were more accurate, I would’ve said, “This is not YOUR toy, Gabe… it’s Mommy’s,” but no matter – it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. The device already had him at “hello.”

Well, things have certainly changed over the past year. Despite my initial reluctance, the iPhone became a favorite plaything for both Gabe and my 8-year-old daughter, Hazel. But in Gabe’s case, the bond went pretty deep. In fact, it seemed the iPhone was his new best pal! It held his meltdowns at bay and kept him calm and happy through two vacations (along with ridiculously long airport waits), two ER visits for allergic reactions and various other family dramas. While he also loved books and his stuffed triceratops, nothing came close to the spell that smartphone had on him. During his most difficult moments, he was prone to tantrums, disorganization and tears. But with the device in his hands, he was calm, focused and in control. I even caught him whispering to it, “I love you, iPhoney. You’re my friend.”

Yes, I wanted my gadget back, but this was a no-brainer. The iPhone was magic for my son.

Now this didn’t mean he had unlimited access. On the contrary, my husband and I made it a priority to set limits. The iPhone was a reward for good behavior, a teaching tool for managing resources, an educational opportunity, and a pacifier all in one. And you know what? Even we couldn’t foresee the benefits of creative iParenting. His excitability and overall behavior improved dramatically at home and at preschool (at least according to his teachers’ comments). So what was our secret? Well, I’ll share them with you below. I hope you find these tips as helpful as we have:

#1) First and foremost, establish control of the tech. This must be clear from Day One. (Actually, this applies to iPhones, children’s toys or any other objects of desire.) Decisions over when, where and how often the children can play with something always rests with the parents. The kids cannot use gaming devices, turn on the TV, or even touch the iPhone unless they ask first. If they don’t, we take it away. Period.

#2) Set up rules or a system. In our house, we use a “bean system.” (You could use gold stars, magnets, or whatever else works.) If Gabe goes a whole day without hitting or yelling, he earns a bean. If he demonstrates other good behaviors, he earns a bean. It takes three beans to earn a few minutes on the iPhone. He still has to ask permission, but access is granted based on how many beans he has earned. After instituting this policy, he has gone from multiple outbursts or incidents per day, to just three over a few months.

#3) Use the device for other learning opportunities. We realized the bean system offered a unique chance to educate Gabe on the value of money, which can be a tough lesson for any child. Here’s how it works for us: Each bean is worth $0.50, and he can cash them in at his discretion. So when he wanted to upgrade to the latest version of Rolando, I asked him to pay me in beans, and he “bought” it himself.

#4) Explore educational apps. Gabe is entranced by vids and game apps like Bounce On and Rolando, but there are also some great educational options too, like Learn Sight Words, Word Magic, Wheels on the Bus, and ABCpaint. We’ve also downloaded some cool puzzle games that help them think analytically, such as Boxed In (so much fun!) and Flood-It! (simple but addicting). There are a wide range of choices for math, spelling, vocabulary, and other subjects, so consider what you’d like to focus on, as well as age-appropriateness. There’s nothing worse than accidentally downloading an SAT app or college-level program, only to watch your tot throw that precious handset at the floor in frustration!

#5) Do it together. I may be a somewhat tech-savvy parent, but I wonder – like everyone else – if we lose our children (and each other) to technology. As a society, we increasingly stare at screens all day. (Friends and family connecting on Facebook isn’t the same as them meeting face to face.) So when Gabe started using the iPhone as a real-life bonding experience, I was touched. He once asked me, Mommy, would you like to play Rolando? When I told him I didn’t know how, he offered to teach me. Now his favorite iPhone pastime is showing family members the ropes. We sit together, while he patiently teaches us how to play a game or navigate an app.

#6) Have fun! Kids (and adults, too) love tech because it’s fun. What’s important is to maintain our love and passion for it, otherwise none of the other rules will work. This can be tough to remember, with all the teaching, rewarding and connecting, but it’s equally important to keep it fun!

Over the past holiday season, Gabe was interested in another gaming device. I wasn’t worried – I knew these rules could apply to that gadget as well – but it did surprise me. Then a moment later, a new thought dawned on me: If Santa brought it to him, maybe I could get my iPhone back! So we bought Nintendo DS Lites, cool cases and game cartridges for both kids. Hazel took to it immediately. As for Gabe – well, it wasn’t that simple. Turns out, being interested isn’t the same as being utterly enchanted by something. So after a few failed attempts, he came up to me and whispered, “Mommy, where’s your iPhoney? I miiiisssss himmm.”

That’s my boy.”

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  • Scott

    Fun article to read and great advice… thinking I may be able to apply this “bean” system to my wife and her iPhone :)

  • edrompa

    I really enjoyed this article. It was really cute and a good read. Keep up the good work!

  • iphonewannabe

    An enjoyable article, great to see the iphone used for a healthy distraction and not be a social distraction with keeping the family connection still intact.

  • Scott, Never used it on my husband, let me know that works out for you, but don’t tell her where you got your idea!

  • Edrompa,
    Thanks for the kind feedback–this was a fun one to write!

    I agree — so important to use the tech to connect, not divide the family.

  • I could get my iPhone back! So we bought Nintendo DS Lites, cool cases and game cartridges for both kids.