Monday, June 25, 2012

Kids and Cell Phones--Start Talking

If you are the parent of a child over the age of 7, the topic of cell phones probably causes heart palpitations. The anxiety associated with getting your child a cell-phone comes from many directions and the decision is anything but straightforward. The reality is that children aren’t magically ready to handle a cell phone at a certain age. You have to make your child ready. As with most major milestones for your child, parents need to prepare and take the leading role to make it a successful venture. The first step is talking to your child.

When. Parents need to talk to their kids about cell phones sooner than you think. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not a valid option. Just because your child doesn’t have a cell phone yet doesn’t mean they aren’t using their friends’ phones or their friends’ older siblings’ phones. Studies show that the average age a child first borrows a cell phone is 8, so get ready early.

Educate Yourself. Before you can have a credible conversation with your child about cell phones, you need to educate yourself on the topic. If you are a “techie”, you can skip the rest of this paragraph. If you are like the rest of us, keep reading. Surprise! Cell phones are not simply devices to call someone! Today’s cell phones can include texting, picture texting (made famous by sexting scandals of late), email,  video chat, cameras, video recorders, internet access, twitter, facebook, photo and video share sites, and on and on. Believe me when I tell you that our children are like cell phone savants.
They will somehow figure out how to use each and every feature on a new phone before it is even out of the box. Before your child starts borrowing their friend’s phone and before you try to sound like you know what you’re talking about, you need to educate yourself on cell phone features (and all the trouble your child can get into). A little time on google should do the trick, or hire a local teenager to teach you.

Start Talking. Cell phones are a big responsibility for your child, and you need to prepare them (and you) for this endeavor. There is a whole list of important topics to cover with your child. Your first goal is to get everyone’s opinions out on the table. You want to find out what they think and why. You also want them to understand what you think and why. Do listen, ask questions, and act interested. Don’t lecture, react negatively, or lay down the law. Treat this as information sharing. Understanding the difference between your opinions is a fine goal at this point. At the end of the day, your kids are going to think what they think. A thoughtful and non-confrontational discussion with their parent is much more likely to get them to examine their own opinions than a one-sided lecture.

So, what are all things you and your child will be talking about? Here is a starter list of hot topics:
  • Cell phone usage – Who, what, when,  and how much. Your child’s opinion of appropriate usage rules might be quite eye opening. Be sure to include things like facebook, twitter, posting photos or videos to youtube or other sites, and other networking sites.
  • Cell phone etiquette – Surprisingly, studies show that only 1/3 of families have rules about texting at the dinner table. With all of the angst about kids and cell phones, simple etiquette is often overlooked. Talk about the dinner table, restaurants, elevators, doctor’s offices, etc.
  • Permanence of cyberspace—Kids can be very impulsive. Understanding the long-term impact of something they send from their cell phone is a critical point for them to understand.
  • Sexting—You might cringe at the thought of this discussion but you don’t want them to learn the hard way. Scandals are the best lesson for what can happen if these things aren’t discussed.
  • When they should get a cell phone—Find out when they think they should get a cell phone and what they would use it for.
  • Borrowing a cell phone—Because your child may soon (or already) be borrowing phones, this is an exception. Instead of just sharing opinions, you’ll need to come to an agreement about appropriate uses for borrowed phones. Make sure you listen to what they have to say and that they understand where you are coming from. Once you come to an agreement, make sure they understand that demonstrating appropriate use of a borrowed cell phone is an absolute requirement for getting their own cell phone at some point.

You’ll need to tailor these topics based on the age and maturity of your child. To help get things rolling, TV shows and media are a bonanza for starting conversations about all of these topics. Or, try some simple questions such as “Do any of your friends have cell phones?”, “What do they use them for?”, etc. This doesn’t need to happen in one marathon conversation. But as your child gets closer to having their own cell phone, you’ll want to make sure you talk and understand what they think on these important topics (and that they know your opinions too).

Obviously, doing all of this is much easier said than done. Suppressing your instinct to tell them what to think is difficult. Getting a child who prefers one word answers to speak meaningful sentences can be an uphill battle. But, you have to try. If you do, what you can achieve is more than worth it.  In case you are wondering exactly what you will achieve, here it is:
  1. 1.     You will demonstrate for your child that the two of you can have a real conversation, or at the very least that you are willing to try. As you approach the critical teenage years, this will become increasingly important.
  2. 2.     You will each come to a better understanding of what the other thinks. You may even make some progress toward reaching a more common understanding. But, even if you don’t, at least you are prepared for the discussion you will need to have when you plan to actually buy them their first cell phone. 

So, start the conversation. You may be surprised by what you learn from your child. When the time comes to get your child a cell phone, you’ll be happy you did.

Next up:  Kids and Cell Phones—Taking the Plunge

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