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Family Matters

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!

8 Ways to Find Childcare on Vacation

June 26th, 2013

Get kid-free time during your trip by hiring a babaysitter or exploring other care solutions.

By: Mark G. McLaughlin

Family vacations are great for bonding with loved ones as you get away from your normal routines. But a family vacation can sometimes feel like no vacation at all for parents chasing after kids. Parents need time to themselves, and not just for romance, but to relax, reconnect and revisit what brought them together. The kids, too, often need a break -- time without the watchful worrying eyes of parents, time to be kids and time to be with other kids. Even if it's for just a few hours while you and your partner go out dinner, you'll all appreciate the time apart.

Travel experts like Cindy Richards, editor-in-chief of TravelingMom.com, Shelly Rivoli, award-winning author of Travels with Baby, and Paul Mulholland, of Troy's Travel Agency in Great Barrington, Mass., share their tips for getting a vacation from your kids during a vacation.
Choose a Hotel with Babysitting Services Lots of hotels and resorts offer access to babysitters, day care and kids clubs. "When you're traveling with little ones," says Richards, "research the babysitting services offered through the resort. The extra time it gives you as a couple will more than make up for the extra time you spend researching." Rivoli concurs, saying: "I recommend making your plan before you go, to make sure you'll have a caregiver who meets your criteria and will be available when you need her." Even if you're only leaving your kids for an hour or two, keep safety in mind. Ask the hotel where they find the sitters, how they interview them and if they run background and reference checks. Do they watch the kids in your room, a child care facility or other spot in the hotel? Interview the actual babysitter yourself and take a look at the facilities to confirm they are clean and safe.

Take a Kid-Friendly Cruise
Like hotels, most cruise ships offer child care or supervised activities for children. With the kids safe and nearby, parents can get some worry-free alone time. Mulholland is a fan of the Disney Cruise Line, which offers lots of options for young kids, teens and tweens. Since some cruises have minimum traveling ages, make sure your little ones are old enough to hop aboard.

Bring Your Nanny with You
Already have a regular nanny? Take her along. Ask if she would be willing to come with you on your trip to watch the kids part of the time. Negotiate a salary that works for everyone -- maybe a lump sum for the entire vacation. Talk about what is expected: what hours will she work, will she have her own room, what she should do with the kids, etc. Keep in mind that this option can get pricey, as you have to pay for her travel, lodging and food expenses. But in the right situation, it can be a lifesaver!

Hire a Babysitter
If your hotel doesn't offer a service or you prefer to do the vetting yourself, hire your own temporary sitter for your trip. Use a site like Care.com to search for sitters who live in that area. Post a job in the postal code or zip code where you'll be traveling (use your home address when you sign up and create an account). Mention in the job title and description that you're looking for a vacation sitter for your kids and what you want the person to do. If want someone to watch your kids for a few short hours, a babysitter is your best bet. If you want someone to be with your kids for a longer period, take them
sightseeing and plan activities, look for a part-time nanny. Make sure you still interview potential sitters (maybe do a Skype video chat), do background checks and talk to references before you hire anyone.

Reserve a Room with a View -- and a Veranda
Not all families can afford a resort, however, and not all parents can afford or are comfortable turning over responsibility to strangers. Richards has a simple suggestion for families in that situation: "Book a hotel room with a balcony, so you and your spouse can take a bottle of wine out to the 'veranda' once the kids are asleep." This is an inexpensive and easy option for getting at least a little alone time while vacationing with children.

Book a Suite, Adjoining Rooms, a Condo or a House
"When the kids are old enough (generally six-plus) to be in their own room," suggests Richards, "book a suite, condo or house swap -- anything that keeps you in the same space, but gives the parents a separate room (with a door that locks) and gives the kids their own space (with a TV to keep them engaged)." You'll be able to watch over your kids, but still enjoy some privacy.

Plan a Multigenerational Vacation
Make this a real family vacation and bring Grandma and Grandpa along. According to a poll, 40 per cent of families have gone on a multigenerational vacation. In an era where many grandparents live in different cities, provinces or time zones than their grandchildren, a trip can forge bonds far stronger than a simple holiday visit to grandma's house. Plus, grandparents make great babysitters.

Look for the "All-Inclusive" Option
Family camps have gone beyond cabins in the Catskills a la Dirty Dancing or dude ranches of the sort often made fun of on sitcoms. Many theme parks and camps have baby care centers and babysitting services. They also offer lots of options for family fun -- including kids-only activities and entertainment.

With these tips, you can have the perfect vacation, complete with ample family time and just enough "alone time" with your partner to remind you both how much you enjoy one another's company.

Mark G. McLaughlin was a stay-at-home dad, Girl Scout and Cub Scout leader and grade school, soccer and T-Ball coach. He is a professional novelist, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, book reviewer, game designer and columnist, with more than 30 years of experience in writing. His work can be found at www.examiner.com/history-in-hartford/mark-mclaughlin. For more information, visit ca.care.com.

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