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Rules for Kids' First Cell Phone

Are you considering getting your child their first cell phone?

If they are in the double digits, starting to spend a little time on their own or getting home by bus or walking, a cell phone can be a parent's friend. Some of us have chosen an age when a cell phone will happen; whether it's grade 3, 7 or 10, no judgment here. Every family is different and has different reasons for getting their child a mobile phone. Our oldest two set the precedence in our family when they were 12 and started bussing and being away from us for short stints. If you've decided your child will not have a cell phone until they are an adult or old enough to pay for it monthly, these rules may not be relevant for you and I applaud your resolve. I chose differently and I've had to learn along the way what that choice meant.

What I've learned and want to share is how to avoid or address some of the pitfalls we've faced as parents of five kids with five different cellphone experiences. These are mostly for elementary and junior high and are fluid, always changing. Our access and privacy rules definitely changed when they entered high school.

First, consider why your child NEEDS a cell phone. If it is for safety and your piece of mind knowing where they are, do they need a smart phone with access to the World Wide Web when they are out of the house with no supervision? If they are in elementary, probably not, but again it's your call. Just realize that your sweet, innocent 9 year old is curious and has friends who may be more curious. If you just put one curious word like... Say, "boobs" in a search engine, guess what will show up on their screen? A whole lot of boobs! This may or may not be a big deal to your family but imagine all the other curious words they can choose to access, with photos and videos! I had a friend find the word "fagina" in her computer Internet history when her sons were 8 and 10, which was her time to figure out how to safeguard them on the computer. Thank goodness for poor spelling :)

You can still get cell phones with voice and text only options or you can get a smart phone with no data plan for it: however, know they will still have access in wifi areas like friends' houses or at school. Be prepared to find questionable history if they have access to everything and anything. Kids are curious and you have just given them the answer to all their questions at their fingertips in Google!

Here are the RULES I wish we had started with before giving any of our kids a phone:

1. Access
The point of getting a cell phone for kids is usually because we want to be able to reach them (and they can reach us) when we or they are away from home. If we call or text, they should answer or respond as soon as possible.
Moms/dads have all the passwords and WE OWN the phone. The child is allowed to use the phone but it is not their possession to keep from you. If they are younger, maybe they only get access when they will be separated from their parents.
We will check the activity on the phone and the kids need to know up front that nothing is private, even if they delete it we can access the account history. This is not a spying tool for parents but an opportunity for our kids to learn about doing the right thing and for parents to help guide their child's journey in the online world.

2. Safety
If you do go the smartphone route, whether they are little or in high school:
- install a "find my phone" app. This allows you to find a lost phone... Or a lost or non-responsive child. Their location services must remain on at all times for this function to work.
- No communication with people they do not know. This holds true if they have a phone or when they begin playing online games on the family computer or tablet. These are scary discussions to have with our kids but if they are online, you need to have them. Age appropriate examples of online predators and the risks may save their lives.
- No downloading of apps without permission. Moms and dads need to know what's out there to be able to say yes or no. This is a daunting task if you aren't tech savvy and I guarantee your kids are more in-the-know then you are. If they ask to download an app you aren't familiar with, look into it. There are loads of parenting reviews available online. Say no if you're not comfortable and set an age when you may be more comfortable and they can have it.
- Set up parental controls on each device so they need a password to access downloads or certain apps. Each phone is different so check your specific phone details to do this. Don't wait, do it now.

3. Phones do NOT go to bed. The temptation of texting friends all night, the ambient light of a phone ruining sleep patterns and just a total disregard for the importance of sleep all get tested if phones go to bed with kids. They may try the "but it's my alarm clock" or "I just use it to fall asleep to music". Do not fall for this! Get them a clock radio or CD player with an alarm.

4. No phones at meals (I've broken this one on occasion and heard about it). Meal times should be spent together as much as possible and without the distraction of texts, games, videos, etc. It is a hard habit to break if you don't make the rule from the get-go. The people in front of you are much more important than the device in your hands; show them that.

5. Take care of it!
Consider what feels right for you, making them earn money for their first phone or gifting it to them. Kids are growing and learning to be responsible and they will make mistakes - that includes with their phones. Whether you bought the first one or they did, you have to decide if you will have mercy if they have one accident or lose it. I guarantee they will appreciate it more and take better care of it if they paid for it but that will work too if the repair or replacement phone was earned. Just whatever you do... Do not repair or replace a second time. It will never end! Trust me .

6. Photos, Videos and Sexting (I know, but read it!)
For the little ones, no taking pictures or videos of people without permission. Elementary kids have gotten themselves into hot water just being silly and thinking it's fun to share or show pictures of classmates in embarrassing situations, but it isn't fun for everyone. See, that was easy!

Now the hard part... Sending pornographic pics or videos of themselves or others through their phones (tablets and computers too) happening at far too young ages. I know this sounds horrific if you have kids who are very young and the concept of even bringing this up seems ridiculous; However, it's happening everyday in almost every junior high in the city. Ask your school administrators and you will find they are dealing with online bullying and sexting issues all the time. Cell phones make these situations very easy to get involved with and sadly it has become the norm. It freaks me out too, but if we don't have these conversations, monitor online activities and stay in the know, it may be our kids making this mistake, and it's a big one.
Can you imagine yourself when you had your first big crush? Can you remember peer pressure? Talking about societal issues and sexualization in the media is a whole other post, but media is influencing a generation and we can't turn a blind eye hoping it's not our child participating in these activities. I hope it isn't either, but they likely know, have seen or heard about a boy or girl who sent nude photos. Have the conversation.
Taking nude pics of underage kids is child pornography. Sending it through the Internet or a cell phone is distribution of child pornography. Even if it's the child taking and sending pictures of them self, it is still illegal. There are too many examples of kids being expelled from schools and some have been charged with these offenses. Even worse though is how it impacts the child when their private photos are shared with the entire class, school or on social media. They just didn't know how bad it could be sending one simple picture, but it can be horrible.

We need to educate our kids and prepare them for how their actions with their cell phones can change their lives in a moment. We also need to educate ourselves on the realities and dangers having access to anything can create.

Communication about the tough topics, set clear boundaries and rules, research apps, and "you own the phone" messaging all can help you in navigating the rough waters. Kids will make mistakes so be prepared for bumps in the road but by knowing and discussing in advance I hope these tips will help make your child's first cell phone experience a good one. Good luck!

Make Everyday a Father’s Day: Ten Parenting Tips Just for Dads

May 16th, 2012

By: Jennifer M. Koontz

Let’s face it, sometimes fathers feel a bit left out. They may feel a little unsure of their abilities in the parenting department, and women, like many other species, can smell fear.  Not only do we moms want to save a father from feeling bad, we also want to prevent as much fussing as possible, by both the father and the child. So we step in.  The problem is, sometimes we don’t step out again. Having a mom is great, but children need the special perspective that a dad can offer.  As a dad, here are the things that us moms want you to know to feel confident about your parenting abilities:
1.    Don’t be afraid to be alone with your child.  If your child is in the baby stage, the most important thing to remember is this: babies cry sometimes.  You cannot always prevent it.  So, rather than being intimidated by it, go through a mental checklist:  Is the baby hungry, tired, hot, cold, or in need of a diaper change?  If you’ve tried to fix the above issues and the crying continues, try a change of scenery (and bring the baby with you). If possible, walk outside, several laps around the house, or up and down the street.  If you’re not sure how to work the stroller, don’t use it. You will eventually succeed in calming your baby.  And, in doing so, you will feel an incredible sense of pride in yourself and your “dad instinct.”

2.    Children love to cuddle with their dads.  You guys have some kind of kid-calming mechanism implanted in you somehow, I am convinced.  You’re warm, you’re calm, you talk in a low-pitched voice, and you can sit for hours, snuggling and watching baseball.  Revel in the fact that you have a talent that mom may not have – the snuggling factor.  Kids often seek mom out for emergencies (no matter how trivial), but if you are open to it, they will seek you out for snuggling, for comfort, for security.  You lucky dog, you.

3.    Though mom may have it all under control, you need to be “in the loop.” Find out what disciplinary actions have been taken while you were away.  What’s the back story?  It is imperative that you and mom work together to raise your child.  You need to know what has happened in the day, good and bad, so that any transfer of responsibility is seamless. Children know when we are uninformed and they use it to their advantage.  You can count on that.  So, if you are not told what has happened, please ask.  Your competence depends on it.

4.    Your words mean more than you will ever know.  Dads tend not to understand how important they are. You may not have had quite as much experience with children as mom has, but your words of comfort, support, love, and pride will stay with your child forever.  Choose your words carefully, for they carry with them the self-esteem that your child will draw upon as she grows.  Don’t underestimate the power of your words. What you say does matter.

5.    Play. You work a lot, so when you are with your kids, play.  Stay vigilant, be safe, choose age appropriate activities, but gosh darn it, play.  It is the best way to bond with children, because it equalizes you, at least for the time that you are playing.  Children “let their guard down” a little when they play, and you may learn how your child is feeling about things as you play.  Dads tend to be pretty good listeners, so as you play, if you notice your child beginning to open up, just listen.  You don’t have to give advice.  In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. Every now and then, say, “Do you feel like you need any help with that situation?” and take it from there. Playing opens the doors to having fun, but it also shows your child that you are willing to be there for him.

6.    Turn off the box.  No matter what the box is, turn it off for a while.  If it’s your cell phone, your iPad, your Blackberry, your laptop, your TV, your gaming system, or anything else technological, turn it off. Spend some time with your child doing something that you’ve never tried before.  If you get the old eye roll, ignore it.  Some children never want to try new things, so it’s up to you to encourage them.  Children love to build things, and be honest, so do you.  Get some blocks, some Legos, or even just some rocks and sticks.  Build something with your child and show him or her that the world is more than just high-tech.  Slow the world down sometimes and show your child another way to live. You might even find that you enjoy it.

7.    Carve out a niche. Dads usually don’t get a chance to spend as much time with their kids as moms do. So, their time is precious. What you can do to become a great dad is to do something a bit differently than everyone else. One of the best ways to do this is to create a tradition.  Don’t spend much money, don’t stuff him full of junk food, but think of a way that you can give meaning to the precious time that you have with your child. You have something to offer that is different from what anyone else has to offer.  Your child has only one dad, and that’s you.  You have the opportunity to be special to your child, so by all means, step up and give it a try.

8.    Be something more than just “the bank.”  Dads are often portrayed as the ones who hand out the money and then slip into oblivion.  As a dad, you will be asked for money.  It starts with, “Can I have a quarter, Dad?” and will continue for many years after that.  If you can give, please feel free.  But simply being the money distributor does nothing to teach your child.   If your child asks for money, ask a few questions. Don’t say, “no,” but don’t say, “yes” right away, either.  Inquire as to the nature of the intended use for the money.  Take a moment to talk over the consequences of choices being made.  Please, whatever you do, don’t hand out money just to stop the “Please Dad, please Dad, can I, Dad, oh c’mon dad”.  You are more than the bank, you are responsible for helping to teach your child the value of money.  At home, talk about how money can be earned by doing particular chores. Pay promptly when the chores are completed satisfactorily (be sure to check), and whatever you do, don’t “round down” when it’s time to pay.

9.    When it comes time to set boundaries of any type, don’t let mom go it alone. She needs your support. Create a system together and stick by it, no matter what.  Your child needs you to be firm, calm, and unwavering.  Your child wants to respect you.  Show him a man who is worthy of respect.

10. If you make a mistake, admit it. Don’t pretend to be a superhero.  All parents make mistakes, and it doesn’t discredit you at all if you admit it.  Explain briefly to your child the mistake you made in your parenting, and then explain how the situation will be corrected.  Say, “Everyone makes mistakes, and I made one. I’m sorry.  I have learned from it, and I’ll do my very best to not make that mistake again.”  Your child isn’t keeping a tally of your mistakes.  If anything, she is keeping track of the times you were there for her, to give her a hug, a pep talk, or a tissue to dry her tears.

Dads sell themselves short when they shy away from parenting.  All parents need practice to parent well.  Give yourself a chance to practice, and if you do it wrong, your child will let you know, regardless of their age.  To learn to work as a team, you and your child have to suit up and give it a try.  You have talent, I promise you.  Now, go get ‘em, Dad.
Jennifer M. Koontz is a mother and an educator who has taught students of all ages, from preschool through college. She is the author of When Your Centerpiece is Made of Play-Doh and the Dog Has Eaten Your Crayons: A Mother’s Perspective on Parenting. For more information, please visit,

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