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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!

What Makes the Best Toys?

October 31st, 2013

By: Kendra Fletcher

Ah, play! We never really grow too old to play; we just play at different things, don’t we? While most of us are endeavouring to train up our children to understand what it means to work hard, we recognize the value of playtime and creative downtime at any age.

Our little people spend the bulk of their time at play, and that’s as it should be. We can incorporate more purposeful learning into their days in covert ways that mask as play, but the truth is, they learn and enjoy a lot simply by playing.

In the Western world, our kids are inundated with toy choices, but that means there are as many terrible toys as there are good ones. I’m not getting philosophical or talking toy morality; I just mean that there’s a whole lot of plastic junk out there. 

Would it be helpful to know which toys have endured five boys and three girls over nineteen years in our home? Obviously, the best toys here won’t be the best toys for everyone, but there are some things we’ve considered as we’ve purchased toys:

1. How long will this toy last?

Have you ever gone into a boutique toy store and marveled at the price on the European organic birch train set that sells for $1,200? I wonder, “Who can buy these things?” However, that’s probably the last train set you would ever buy. I can’t shell out $1,200 for a train set, but I have picked up a well-made car or doll as a bit of a splurge, and invariably those are the toys that are still around. They might look like they’ve endured a war, but they are well loved and enjoyed by many.

I want to know that a toy is constructed well and will be worth the investment. The tiny Waldorf doll I purchased for our youngest daughter was a splurge, but her love for that dolly is legendary in our home.

2. How many ways can this toy be played with?

Some toys have multiple uses. A set of well-made wooden blocks can become virtually anything, and our set of CitiBlocs has been used to build simple houses, train tracks, pretend food, cargo for the back of trucks, and reproductions of the Eiffel Tower.

LEGO bricks are good for this too. If your kids are like mine, LEGO bricks have a play value that reaches far beyond the sets they come in. I used to get frustrated with my boys’ propensity to build a set once and then never again, but the creativity factor is worth the mess every time they dump those pieces all over the floor.

Basic costume pieces such as bandanas, scarves, belts, hats, T-shirts, cropped pants, and vests can be used in many ways as well. My kids are far more creative than I am; a bandana has been a pirate hat, a granny scarf, a gypsy sash, and a beggar’s bag. It is simply delightful to see what kids come up with when you give them a box of assorted costume-type things.

3. How many kids will want to play with this toy?

When I think about keeping toys around for our grandkids, the number-one factor I consider is whether or not a toy will have “universal appeal.” If I’m going to store it, I want to know that many kids will continue to enjoy it.

For us, the toys with the most use among the age spectrum have been CitiBlocs, LEGO bricks, the Wii, board games, bikes, costumes, skateboards, and BRIO trains. It’s great to see my adult son take the time to build a killer train set for the 4-year-old, and although that’s not what he’d choose to spend an hour doing for himself, he actually enjoys building something great for the little guys.

The CitiBlocs have the same appeal. I recently saw my 13-year-old, 11-year-old, 10-year-old, and 7-year-old get hold of the blocks, and suddenly a town emerged out of the identically shaped and sized pieces. Turrets and fences, moats and balconies were constructed. Arguments over who had more blocks ensued until the oldest said, “Ummm, we’re arguing over blocks.”

4. How easy is this toy to store?

 Many of us have limited space to store things, and as we began to add school items we realized how quickly that storage space was being eaten up! For several years, our entire kindergarten curriculum and related supplies were stored in a Rubbermaid box under the crib. I know many of you can relate to the need for creativity in regard to storage.

Despite our love for blocks, my husband has banned toys that come in sets of a bazillion. Seriously. Do we really need a box of one thousand tiny plastic beads? Inevitably those beads end up in our vacuum, and it doesn’t take many to clog it. No fun. So for our family, toys that come in sets of a lot of pieces are passed by, and I think our ban has brought us a measure of peace.

If you’re okay with a toy or toys making their home in your living room, then no need to worry about storage. We have some toys like that. The ones that are played with daily are stored in the corner of the family room and that’s the way we like it. But if storage space is at a premium at your house and leaving toys out is not an option, you might want to consider whether or not you have a place for that toy—before you bring it home.

5. How easy is this toy to pick up?

I’m all about peace, and I’ll tell you right now that clutter brings me no peace. Several times a day I stop and make somebody pick up something. Your tolerance level might be higher than mine, and in this I’ll defer to Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” If you want your kids to pick up, don’t thwart their ability to do so by purchasing toys that are a pain in the neck to gather and put in their proper places.

Of course, this probably won’t be the only factor in your decision to purchase or keep a toy around, and it shouldn’t be. If you do have a toy that is tricky to pick up, be sympathetic and get in there with your little ones to help them get all those pieces put away. It’s hard to be a little guy facing a floor of pieces that need to fit just so into a box.

Kendra Fletcher is the homeschooling mother of eight, aged 18 down to 3. She has never known what it means to homeschool without the presence of preschoolers and loves to encourage other moms who are beginning their homeschool journeys with little ones underfoot. Her website and blog can be found at

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