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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!

The Greener Party - A Great Way to Celebrate Earth Day!

February 23rd, 2014

By Teresa Osiowy

You love your kids. You love your planet. Nothing can bring those two realities into conflict like the birthday party experience. Never before have parents had so much conflicting advice at hand to help them endlessly second guess their every move as parents.  When I find myself waffling, I ask myself “How will this impact my children long term?”  The answer to that can be hard to know. This I do know.  The example I set for them about caring for others and the planet when they are small will shape how they do this once they’re grown. It could be the best gift, birthday or otherwise, that they’ll ever receive.

So, if you’re ready to take a first step toward greener parties for a healthier planet, here are 10 ideas to get you started:

1.    Celebrate Nature - Children who have memorable early experiences in nature are more likely to grow to be great stewards of the world around them. With this in mind you might choose an activity that helps instill a love for nature.  An easy way to do this is to plan a nature scavenger hunt in a natural area near your home. A hike and picnic at a park, and tobogganing are all great ways to party outside.  With older kids, an energetic game of Capture the Flag or a hike will make for an unforgettable celebration.

2.    Nurture Your Young Animal Lover -Is your young one gifted with a love of animals? Why not take advantage of the birthday party opportunities available at pet stores, local nature center, a Zoo or the Humane Society?  Or, if you prefer, you might choose to create your own animal- lover birthday party by hosting it at a non-commercial farm or ranch or even at home using an animal theme designed with or by your kids.

3.    Think Globally, Act Locally - This simple message has great power to change the world that we live in. Why not make this your party-theme?  Hosting at home or at a venue located within close range of most guests reduces the environmental impact of driving. Serve food that has been grown or produced locally. Invite guests to join in on the theme by giving locally made gifts. Though reducing the environmental impact of just one birthday party may appear insignificant, raising the awareness level of a group of young friends can have a lasting influence on how they choose to live in the future.

4.    Use What You Can Reuse - While we are all familiar with the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the most effective way to help our planet is the first action in the slogan: REDUCE.  We have become a society that  consumes disposables. In doing so, we consume precious resources of water and energy and add waste products to our world at an alarming rate.  One easy change we can make is to hang onto the kids’ plastic dishes once they’ve outgrown them and re-purpose them as party and picnic dishes. Nothing is easier than filling a green grocery bin or laundry basket with dishes, a couple colourful cloth tablecloths, cloth napkins and the rest of the party gear and heading off to your venue. Once home, it’s just a quick load of the dishwasher for you instead of another load for the landfill.  Learning to use what we already have at hand saves money and the environment.

5.    Replace Responsibly - If you must invest in party dishes and other party gear, this is a great time to switch to items that are made from bamboo or other reusable, sustainable materials and that are biodegradable once they wear out.  Dishes and linens made from natural materials are beautiful, elegant and are a treat to the senses of both young and old.

6.    Gifts That Give Twice - Do you regularly find yourself hosting ridiculously large birthday parties complete with overwhelming mounds of gifts? If so, this idea may be for you. It’s becoming so popular, in fact, I’d venture to call it a trend. One of the best ways to reduce the environmental impact of a birthday party is to ask for charitable donations in lieu of gifts. It may sound crazy the first time you hear of it. Here’s how it works. With your child, select a cause that you care about and would like to contribute to. You may or may not decide to set a fundraising goal. If you do, be sure to keep it very attainable, after all, this isn’t about creating pressure on you or your child. Decide if you’d like to set it up through a business that specializes in facilitating birthday party charitable donations and can organize a mini campaign for you or if you’d prefer to set it up on your own.  If setting it up on your own, you may choose to have your child sign up as a fundraiser for a specific charity (our son continues to fundraise for the Stephen Lewis Foundation two years after his “donations in lieu of gifts” party) or just collect donations from guests and make one lump sum donation to your cause. One perk of using the services of a business that runs your mini-campaign is that, often times, part of the money donated by guests goes toward the cause your child selects and part goes toward a meaningful gift for your child, an effective compromise.  It’s important to be sensitive and consider carefully whether your child is ready for ‘no gifts’ or even reduced gifts. For children who are ready, helping out with a cause they care about can be an empowering experience as they learn that they can use their own resources to make a significant difference in the world. Gifts that save on the environment while helping out a cause you believe in... give twice!

7.    Tree-lovers’ Invites - Looking for other simple ways to reduce your party footprint? It’s easy to send invites electronically using social media, or create your own using online resources and email those that you can, only printing paper invites for those guests who you can’t reach online, in person or by telephone.

8.    Yards of Cards - Reduce, reuse, and recycle doesn’t have to be limited to those occasions that you host.  A small change of habit multiplied by a huge number of party guests equals an enormous change over time.  As you have no doubt noticed, cards are big business and the number of life events ‘requiring’ a card multiplies each year.  Here too, many people are choosing to send e-cards to help the environment. Is your intention for adding a birthday card to a gift just to label the gift?  Well then, label the gift by writing the To and From right on the wrap or taping it to the bag.  Alternately, create a small slip of a card or make a crafty card from recycled items. My personal favorite card reducing tip is the tradition that my grandmother and her sister had of sending the same birthday card back and forth to each other over a period of many years.  Though more of a testament to their sense of humour, today it’s also an environmentally savvy way to reduce the amount of paper, ink and by-products that we process.

9.    Rethinking Loot Bags - Loot Bag, a necessary evil or a commercialized custom we can live without? If you’ve ever pondered how you became trapped in this endless swap of petrochemical polymer toys, pencils that refuse to sharpen straight, and other birthday paraphernalia, you are truly not alone.  Not to be a party pooper in the eyes of those who truly enjoy creating the perfect, theme-based loot bag (believe me, I have been there too), but in the face of global climate change, isn’t it time we rethink this odd custom?  Every parent I know honestly hates bringing home all that plastic destined for the dump. There are other options. If you must send something, consider sending one useful item - unwrapped - such as a storybook or a wooden model truck to build.  Work with your child to create a handmade treasure, choose something made by an artisan from the developing world or decide to shop locally.  This year we took the big step and found that the best loot bag solution of no loot all.

10. Wrapping Up - Let’s take a moment to consider the wrap we give and the wrap we get.  It’s easy to reduce, reuse and recycle here. Can you reuse gift bags you receive or donate them to someone who will?  Perhaps you could skip adding tissue paper to gift bags that you give?  How about recycling wrapping paper or donating it to the art programme at your local school? Of course, the bold move here is no wrapping at all.  Are you ready to refuse to add more refuse to the planet?

Still not sure where to start?  Ask your kids!  The only thing that surprises me more than kids’ great ideas is the fact that we adults still forget to ask for them.  Zoiks!  If the idea is theirs it’s likely you’ll get the buy-in needed to make it fly. It’s hard to imagine what a powerful example we set for our children in everything that we do.  Rest assured, the baby steps you make today in teaching them to care for others and the planet will have a huge and lasting impact in the world. You don’t have to be an environmental expert to pick one small idea and get started.  It’s simple, you love your kids, so love their planet too!

Teresa Osiowy is an author and educator living a life-long learning adventure.  She loves her kids and her planet.

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