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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 Spinellis: Building a Family Through Adoption

January 1st, 2015

By Marina Michaelides

Italians are all about family.

Just after her beloved father died, Teresa Spinelli felt the need for a child to complete her own family more strongly than ever. But, unable to conceive a child of their own, Teresa and husband Mike Newberry decided to adopt.  The couple were both in their forties and soon found out that chances of adopting a baby were near impossible, while the possibility of finding an older child were slim at best. After three years on an emotional roller coaster of raised and dashed hopes, they gave up, resigning themselves to a child-free lifestyle.    

Teresa and Mike built a one-bedroom home, worked hard on their thriving grocery store business, traveled, socialized and could have lived quite happily ever after until that fateful day, January 27, 2007.  They had let go, yet the universe or something, was giving back. Out of the blue, a very pregnant young woman showed up at Teresa’s Italian Centre Shop proclaiming, “I want you to be the mother of my baby.”

Shocked yet ecstatic, Mike and Teresa spent the next few days pondering whether an open adoption–where the birth mother maintains contact with the child as it grows up–would work for them. They ploughed through all the philosophical reasons for and against. “There were tears, prayers, anguish,” Teresa recalls. “Everything we’d ever wanted was right there in front of us…we couldn’t say no, whatever the difficulties might turn out to be.”  

They called the pregnant woman to declare their yes. No answer. A few hours later…still no answer. She had gone into labour.

Teresa and Mike rushed to the hospital and made it in time to witness the birth of a beautiful baby boy. “I was speechless with awe and love for this little one at first sight,” remembers Mike. Any doubts melted in tears of gratitude and compassion as they bonded with both baby and his biological mother, the lady who had chosen them to be his parents. Hours later, Mike and Teresa left the hospital with Massimo Spinelli Newberry in their arms.

“We were absolutely not prepared for what came next,” Teresa exclaims. “We scrambled to get baby clothes, bottles, diapers…we hadn’t had nine months to get ready!”

Neither had Teresa and Mike’s ‘instant’ extended Italian family. Massimo who?!!! was suddenly part of everyone’s life? Massimo’s grandmas or ‘Nonnas’, aunts and uncles were called in to help. “THIS is how you bottle-feed,” they insisted to his newbie parents, backed by generations of Italian experience.

As Massimo grew up, Mike became his main caregiver, leaving Teresa to continue running the stores.  She’s in the office by six every morning, so she can leave early enough to pick Massimo up from school. They spend quality time together on vacation too, and have just come back from a month-long visit to the family back home in Italy where Massimo can practice his fluent Italian. “Strangely enough,” Teresa points out, “he really looks like me and Mike and he even walks like my dad.”

Massimo’s name means “The Greatest” and he is living up to it. For Teresa, like most moms, Massimo, now seven, is her greatest joy, absolutely, and her greatest challenge “…when it’s time for him to stop playing video games,” she smiles.

Massimo’s greatest challenge is learning to swim.  He’s doing great at school, guitar and soccer. Like most other kids he loves superheroes.

Massimo has grown up to be just like his mum when it comes to wanting to take care of everyone. The McCauley neighbourhood where they live has many low-income families, so the Spinelli household is often packed with Massimo’s friends who come over to play and eat.  “He already knows who he is, and that he’s going to play an important role in the community,” smiles Teresa, “His favourite quote last year was from the Spiderman movie, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”

As for any concerns about open adoption, it’s all worked out well. Massimo knows he’s adopted and with regards to his biological mother, “We pray for her every night, and thank her for bringing this beautiful boy to us,” smiles Teresa with warmth and compassion as she tussles Massimo’s hair and squeezes him close in a big hug.  

Tags: Dads, Moms, yeg

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