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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!

Adopted Family Trees

August 28th, 2014

By Barbara Ohrstrom

I grew up in a small town and attended elementary school with the same 30 kids from first grade through 8th grade. Everyone knew I was adopted, and this made it possible for me to forget the gaping difference between me and other kids.  But in 7th grade, in a home economics class, a “new” teacher quickly shattered the illusion that the roots from which I originated were identical to the roots of the other kids.

This teacher had given a homework assignment:  We 7th grade girls were to bring our baby pictures to class.  I did not bring any.  As the 13 or so girls crowded on the benches around the scarred, rectangular heavy wooden table, I sat in the middle on the long side.  The teacher sat at the head of the table, imperiously pointing to each girl, who promptly displayed and then passed her baby pictures.  She pointed at me, and I said, “I don’t have any baby pictures.”  The teacher’s lips grew thin with fury and contempt.  “You forgot them.”

“No, I don’t have any to bring.”

“You don’t have one single baby picture.”

“I do not.”

“You’re lying.”  At this, the class collectively inhaled.  I felt the red of my face deepening as I stared at my hands, folded in my lap, but said nothing.  The truth would have defended against this, but my lips remained stubbornly sealed.  I did not know if my shame were from not having baby pictures, from being called a liar in front of the other girls, or from having been a child “surrendered” by her mother and father.  

The silence stretched.  Finally, one of the other girls spoke up, “she’s adopted,” she said.  The imperious finger moved on.

Later that day, I looked as light of the sun glinted sharply in the pristine puddles of snowmelt.  A field stretched away from the school where a moose had stood the previous fall.  And a giant oak spread its limbs in a perfect dome formation over the trunk of the tree, its green leaves inscribing a shelter around the circumference of the tree.

The tree formed an image of the Tree of Life, a symbol that resonates in many religions across time and space—ancient and modern, European and African, Mayan and Asian, Arabic and Persian.  The Tree of Life symbolizes the idea that all of creation is not only connected, but also bears a single root.  From this image comes the family tree—a smaller, yet no less poignant image of the connections that stretch backwards through time and grip families in the present and in the future.

Yet even as the root grows into a trunk, branches, limbs, twigs, leaves, and seeds, so too does each of us grow separate identities.  Even as an oak tree bears acorns and not pears, so too does the original identity of the adoptee bear the injury of being severed from one family tree and grafted onto another family tree whether the adoptee searches or not.   As adoptees, our responses to this severing and grafting of roots may shape the direction of our identities in the future, but the severed and grafted roots always remain the same.

The searching adoptee and the non-searching adoptee also share the process of the growing graft.  Just as a graft to the a new tree grows, the adoptee, grafted into a new family tree, adapts to this new identity and begins to take this new identity as his or her own.

Some adoptees prefer the new identity and experience no need to search.  But I believe the shadow of the invisible wound may have something to go with this decision.  For instance, even within my biological group of siblings with whom I was adopted, I was the one who searched.  My twin brother and older sister did not share my need to know or to discover why we had been relinquished.  I think they may have felt the relinquishment itself had hurt them enough—why bother with the story or the reasoning?

If my brother and sister interpreted their surrender and subsequent adoption as rejection, even unconsciously, and blamed our biological parents, then logic dictates my siblings would not want to know our biological parents’ story or change their surnames.  One of the quickest and most natural responses to rejection is to reject retroactively:  ‘I didn’t want you anyway, so your rejection means nothing to me.’  This rejection can be absolute:  not only are the biological parents themselves retroactively rejected, but also their stories, reasons, suffering, names, and identities.  If this rejection also encompasses a rejection of the original family tree, does it matter?  After all, the adoptee cannot travel into the past and regraft her now mutated identity to get the growth and time she lost on the original family tree.

This choice, this identity, is as valid and substantial to me as the identity of the searcher.  And if the non-searching identity contains an acceptance of the wound of rejection and an attack against that wound, my identity as a searcher identity contained a hope, a fantasy that something—anything—good might emerge from my severed roots.  I too sought a balm for my injured dignity.  I wanted the dignity of having the right to the truth and to the details of what created that original grafting to the foreign tree.  I wanted to be reunited with my original family tree of life, and found, much to my agony, that the wound of severing and grafting can never be undone.

We become what we do.  I became a searcher. My sister and twin brother became skilled adaptors to their new family tree.  But we all suffered from losing our first parents.  Our first parents suffered from losing us.  This tragedy forms the very root of our identities, and though our responses to this tragedy may differ, the tragedy, and its shaping of our identities, remains the same.

Barbara L. Ohrstrom is the author of Searching for the Castle, available at and  The book, told from the point of view of a young adult, details her search for her biological parents and shows compassion for people involved in adoption and foster care.  She works with young adults through her work as project manager for writing centers at Northeastern University.  Her website is

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