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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!

Exploring the Great Outdoors with Family Camping

April 21st, 2015

picture from MEC

By Josephine Baran

There’s nothing quite like sleeping under the stars, sitting around a campfire and spending quality time with the family. Some of our best family memories were made beneath the stars and out of the way from the city lights.

Camping is a great budget-friendly family vacation option that gives you and your kids the chance to disconnect from the daily routine and reconnect with each other. It’s a way to teach your children about nature and experience the joys of the outdoors. But for first-time family campers, packing up the kids, setting up a tent and living in the outdoors can seem like a daunting task.

With the right gear, planning and organization, family camping can be a fun and enjoyable activity for everyone. Taking the time ahead of your trip to plan is essential, but doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are a few helpful tips on planning, family camping safety and packing for any camping adventure.

Planning your trip

The most important part of family camping happens when you’re still at home. The following are important points to keep in mind before embarking on your trip:

Choose your location wisely

  • Pick your campground early since the good ones fill up early. Many of the bigger national and provincial parks are very busy during the summer.

  • Choose a campground with amenities like flush toilets, hot showers, fire pits, and running water to help make life outside a little easier.

  • Keep it close to home so if someone gets sick or you run out of s’mores you can head home for supplies.

Get familiar with your gear

  • If you bought new gear or are borrowing from a friend, set it up at home before hitting the road. Pitch the tent, light your stove, and test the lantern. This will make it easier to set up when you get to your campsite and will ensure you’re not forgetting anything.

Plan fast, easy and healthy meals

  • You don’t have to eat out of cans around the campfire! Plan some special meals and let the kids pick some treats to build excitement about the upcoming adventure.

  • Keep the ingredients simple and consider pre-packing meals into appropriate portions to avoid loading up your cooler. For your first adventure, try cooking your food beforehand and freezing it solid so all you have to do it warm it up at your campsite.

Don’t leave your family in the dark

  • Pack plenty of flashlights and batteries for those late-night bathroom breaks.

  • Make sure every child has their own flashlight or headlamp – they double as a toy!

Keep it clean

  • Bring a reusable plastic tablecloth to preserve a relatively clean eating area.

  • Create a designated hand-washing station to keep germs away.

  • If required, bring a roll of quarters for the showers and use biodegradable soaps.

Plan for fun

  • Travel size board and card games are perfect for when the sun goes down and are a great way to keep the kids around the campsite while dinner is cooking.

  • Remember that camping tasks can be fun for the little ones. Ask for help sweeping the tent, gathering sticks and preparing the meals.

  • Let the kids bring a few extra toys and their go-to comforts.

Planning goes beyond what you do before your trip. When you get home, air out the tents and sleeping bags before storing them to avoid mold or musty smells. Keep all your gear in one place in large containers with a packing list to eliminate having to check and re-check equipment before your next trip.

Family Camping safety

When away from home, it can be easy for our children to forget household rules and difficult for parents to enforce them. Despite our best intentions, it’s impossible for us to watch them 24 hours a day. Camping requires us to become creative in parenting to ensure our children remain safe.

Here are some tricks I’ve picked up over the years that have helped to keep our children safe from infancy to teenage years:

Set the boundaries

  • Assign a boundary for kids to stay inside, such as the perimeter of your campsite. Bigger kids may be allowed to travel to the perimeter of the campground. Set clear rules: “Don’t cross this line unless you have an adult with you.”

  • Bring skipping ropes to set a physical boundary that children cannot cross. This is also helpful around the cooking area to keep curious hands away from the fire.

Get your children involved

  • Ask for help building the fire, bringing over the pots to the cooking area, or watching you light the fire. This gives you a chance to educate your children about how to cook outside the home and makes them aware that a fire has been started and requires special attention.

Calories are your friend

  • Depending on the time of year, it’s important to keep your children well fed to ensure they are staying warm. Being outside and active all day burns more calories, so it’s not a bad idea to bring a couple chocolate bars with you or place a chunk of butter in their hot chocolate to ensure they’re getting enough.

  • Our fire toaster kept our kids well fed on many occasions, because no matter what mood they were in, they would always eat peanut butter and toast. This is also a good snack option if you run out of granola bars.

Choose sleeping arrangements wisely

  • For young families, sleeping is a big concern for safety. Sleeping bags pose a suffocation risk for toddlers when they wriggle down, so instead, try dressing your children in warm clothes and using a sleeping sac similar to over-the-shoulder snow pants to keep their legs warm.

  • For young kids, a mummy bag is preferable to a rectangular sleeping bag to ensure they don’t roll out or down when tossing and turning in the night.

  • For babies, we used a small camping cot and bug net to keep them contained and safe from nasty bug bites.

Remember that you’re the visitor

  • Pack food and dirty laundry away in the car when it’s not being eaten or worn to avoid hungry animals visiting the campsite.

  • Do not feed or play with any wildlife as it’s harmful for animals to eat human food and unhealthy for them to become accustomed to humans.

Figuring out what works best for your family is the best way to keep them safe. Growing up, our children were always runners; to keep them safe, I would attach a red flashing bike light and a bear bell to their clothing so that if they ran away, it would be easy to see and hear them in the green foliage. You know your family best and can come up with great ideas to keep them safe.

Having the right gear

Having the right gear makes a world of difference when you’re away from home. It’s easy to improvise if you forgot some toys for the kids, but much harder if you forgot to pack the tent. The side bar includes essential camping equipment you’ll want to have for your camping trip.

Additionally, here are some tricks and tips I’ve picked up in my 35 years of camping experience:

  • Avoid packing cottons and jeans, as they take much longer to dry.

  • Depending on the ages of your children, pack a small potty or designate a potty bowl for late notice bathroom breaks.

  • Use a backpack for children 6 months to 3 years. It keeps your hands free, is safer than front loading carriers for cooking, and is easy to use for longer family walks and hikes. 

Camping is a wonderful experience to share with your family and the perfect time to try things you wouldn’t normally do at home. One of our favourites is waking the kids up for a short midnight walk. Without the air pollution from the city, it’s easy to see the stars and fun to play some flashlight tag.

Josephine is an Outreach Coordinator at Canada’s leading outdoor retailer, MEC, at the Edmonton store. She has been camping for over 35 years and has 15 years of experience camping with her three children. When she is not at MEC, she can be found running or skiing with her kids and dog in tow.

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