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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!

How to Have a Happy Downsized Holiday

October 31st, 2013

By: Judy Arnall 

Even as the economy is recovering, many families will still have to put the brakes on Christmas spending. How does one cut down? How do we break it to the kids? What will the relatives think if we don't participate in the gift frenzy? Families can do all three if they communicate the changes early, with loving intent and with assurances that the holidays will be about presence and not presents.

How to Limit Children's Demands at Christmas

Remember that children remember good times and not toys. Create rituals around the tree decorating, baking, activities and family and friend visits. Children will remember a special time with Grandma baking cookies much more than the hottest gift that is tossed aside in favour of more gifts.

Try to get the most wanted gift on their list if possible. It only has to be one special, coveted gift. If you can't get or can't afford the "hot" gift, use your parent judgment to decide what toys and games have the best play value. Keep in mind that children are often disappointed with the advertising hype when they eventually get the "it" gift.

Don't dismiss the second hand stores for huge bargains on consignment and gently used toys. Children DO NOT care if the toy doesn't come in mounds of wire, and clear plastic and cardboard packaging. The toys don't have to be new, just new to them. Make sure the toys are clean and working though. Keep in mind that as a parent, you know which toys offer more play value than others. Many children like simple unstructured toys that can be played with in many different ways.         

Tell the children to put all their "I wants” on a list when you are out shopping or they are watching TV. Parking the desired objects on paper assures them they won't forget and it gives you clues as to what they really, really want especially if it's written on the list five times. Writing it down tends to curb the whining and nagging out at the mall.         

Turn off the TV from Halloween onward. Watch videos instead. Children don't need to be advertised to so much during the holiday season. They may not even want the item for interest sake as much as for peer pressure sake or the fact that the media over-hypes the features of the toy.

Explain limitations in a very age-appropriate, simple way. It's perfectly okay to tell children, "We don't have the money for that this Christmas." Or, "Santa can't bring such expensive gifts."

Acknowledge your child's feelings of unhappiness and disappointment. Your job as a parent is not to shield your child from unpleasant feelings. In fact, you are giving them a greater gift by allowing them to experience disappointment and the self-esteem they reap from dealing with it and surviving quite well. That gift is called Emotional Intelligence and it will serve them tenfold later in life.          

Put the emphasis on people and not things. Do special things for charity, relatives, and people in the community and friends. Time is very much more appreciated than money and items from others and again, your children will remember those special moments and gratitude from others.

Focus on doing, rather than getting. Make presents from everyday items. Kids love to make them and they experience the real joy of giving when they put so much more effort into the object, rather than to pull it off a store shelf and have Mom or Dad hand over the credit card to the salesperson.

How to Pull Out of the Family Gift Frenzy

Communicate in late October or the beginning of November to your family and friends of your intentions. Email, write, telephone or casually mention in person that you need to downsize Christmas this year. Tell your friends and family members that your family would appreciate their presence more than presents this year. Would they like to come over for a potluck supper at your place at such and such a date? People love get- togethers at someone else's house.

Don't worry; people don't notice the housekeeping or state of repairs. People just love to socialize and catch up over the holidays and they prefer to do it at anyone's house other than their own. A potluck is economical and fun because everyone can bring new dishes.

Assign families with last names beginning with letters from A-H, with the task to bring appetizers. Families with names from I-P can bring main dishes and families with the letters Q-Z can bring dessert. (Chips don't count) As the host, you could provide the

drinks (non-alcoholic is perfectly acceptable) and you have the makings of a very festive, fun, catch-up social event. Isn't that what the holidays are all about? People, peace and connections. Not stuff.


Judy Arnall is a professional international award-winning Parenting and Teacher Conference Speaker, and Trainer, Mom of five children, and author of the best-selling book, Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery and the new DVD, Plugged-In Parenting: Connecting with the digital generation for health, safety and love, as well as the new book, The Last Word on Parenting Advice.,, 403-714-6766

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