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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 Hardest Conversation to Have With Your Child

August 1st, 2013

By: Martin Spinelli

I will never forget the moment it happened to me.  Two police officers tracked me down in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at, as I was getting ready to give a talk at a big international conference.  When they couldn’t look me in the eye I knew something was up.  As they told me that my wife had been killed in a car accident 350 miles away my bag slipped out of my hands and I dropped into the chair behind me.  It was like being kicked in the stomach.

Our four-year-old son Lio had been in the car with her.  He was unconscious in intensive care and the prognoses were dire.  After several weeks, as he regained consciousness and his ability to communicate, his first questions were about his mother, “Where is Mamma?”  “When can we see her?” “Is she OK?”  “Where is Mamma?”  I put it off and made sure the hospital staff knew that I hide the truth for the time being.  I told him that his mother was in another hospital near-by, that she was badly hurt in the accident and wasn’t recovering as well as he was.

But as he put his coma further and further behind him, his questions became more insistent and more desperate.  This meant that it was getting harder for all the nurses to keep their stories straight.  I wanted to hold off longer, not just because of my own fear at the way that scene would unfold, but because I was terrified about causing him an emotional trauma that might derail his recovery. But I knew it had to be done.

 I planned it methodically.  I booked us a little therapy room in the child psychiatry department of the hospital.  I let everyone know when it was going to be happening and to prepare to give us some space afterwards.  Then, casually as I could manage, I rolled Lio in his wheelchair towards the point of no return.

The room contained a wooden dollhouse with toy people in it, stuffed animals, three sturdy chairs and an old leaded window that opened less than two inches. The sun shone in and made little criss-cross patterns on the carpet.  I took him in my arms as we sat in front of the wooden house and played with the people.

“Lio,” I said, carefully laying down a wooden boy with pink freckles and blue shorts.  “I have something to tell you about Mamma.”  Lio stayed focused on building a tower of toy furniture for the toy people.

“It’s something very, very sad and very, very hard.”  He didn’t say anything.

“Lio, Mamma has died.  She died in the accident.”  It didn’t sink in.  He didn’t understand it.  He continued playing as if nothing had been said, as if nothing had happened.

“Lio, I need to tell you that Mamma isn’t here with us anymore.  She’s died.  But her spirit will always be all around us and in our hearts.”  He still didn’t get it, and I considered waiting a few more days or even weeks, but we had come this far and I decided that this had to be it.

“Lio, please listen to me.”  My own voice, calm up until this point, was starting to creak and tremble.  “I’m telling you something very important and very sad.  Your mother has died.  She was killed in the crash.  She’s not on Earth any more but up above the clouds in heaven with Granddad.  But she’ll always be near to us and you’ll always be able to feel her.  She’s looking down on you every day and is so happy that you’re doing so well.”

Then Lio went still.  The toys dropped from his fingers yet his arms remained outstretched in playing position.  And then he started to cry.  He cried and wailed inconsolably and with hardly any breaths between the sobs. He cried for what seemed like 20 minutes and I tried to hold him close but metal frame holding his leg together kept getting the way.  There was nothing I could do to comfort him.  I couldn’t even hold him as he wanted to be held, as I wanted to hold him. My insides turned to ice water.

“I will always be with you,” I said. “I will always be with you, and Mamma will always be in our hearts and in our lives together.”  It was the best I could have done.

There is no “right” way to tell your child that their mother or father has died. There is no formula.  But you will find a way, a way that works for you and for your child.  This is what I learned about having this hardest conversation from my own experience:

•  Trust your instincts.  You have them for a reason and they generally serve you well.

•  Separate your own trauma and grief from your child’s.  This is desperately hard because it’s impossible not to identify with what they’re going through, you have, after all, lost the same person.  But your losses and how you relate to them are going to be different.  Children, especially young children, process the death of a loved one differently from adults.  They can lack an appreciation of its permanence and can continue to ask for the missing parent months or years after the fact.

•  Routines and familiar things can help.  Often adults (myself included) feel the need to put some distance between themselves and the pain of the loss by doing new things—taking a year sabbatical to travel to some new corner of the world (to forget); moving house or neighbourhood or province (to forget); finding a new vacation spot (to forget).  But your child might not be ready to forget.  Even in normal circumstances children tend to like the familiar, during periods of stress and crisis this craving for the usual routines and comforts can have a real roll to play.  Judging when the whole family needs change is the real trick.

•  Look after yourself and conserve your strength.  You may have to remind yourself from time to time that your child isn’t the only one suffering.  This is also hard advice to take, and I flatly rejected it myself for months and months, but you do have to balance your own needs.  In order for your child to come through this in the best way possible, you have to stay strong for the long haul.  This is a marathon, not a sprint.

•  Be flexible.  Your child’s needs are going to evolve and grow as they do.  This means you’re going to have to adapt and be elastic.  Even six years after he lost his mother, my son goes through different phases of drawing pictures, wanting to look at photos of his mother, wanting to talk about her with other people and then long stretches where these things never happen.  Ways of coping that you put in place for the more intense times can be counter-productive and even upsetting when the need has passed.

• Find joy and take heart where you can.  It may not seem like now, but opportunities for this do exist.  There are plenty of studies that suggest that children who lose a parent through death do much better emotionally and developmentally than those who lose a parent through abandonment or a particularly nasty separation.

When you break the terrible news to your child, the relationship you have with them will change forever.  This may sound frightening, but in my case, and in the case of many other parents I’ve spoken with who have found themselves in this situation, the bond you have with your child can strengthen and deepen tremendously.  The love between you can grow as you move through the tragedy together.  It’s uncomfortable and difficult for me to write this, but had Lio’s mother not passed away we would not have the relationship that we have today.  There is an uncommonly strong connection between us—very few fathers and sons on the planet are as close as Lio and I are.  I’m grateful for this every day.

Martin Spinelli is a writer, radio producer and professor. His bestselling book After the Crash tells the story of his son’s miraculous recovery and his own personal transformation. Find him online at

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