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Kids, Phones and Establishing Rules

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Whether I was a teacher, high school administrator, or youth pastor, I have always believed that children need and yes, want rules. Rules, i.e. structure is something we all need and want. It helps us know how to navigate life’s expectations. Sadly, all too often when we hear the word rules, we have flash backs to something negative! It’s like the “life destroyer monster” walks into the room and laughs in your face. Well, I am writing today to tell you that is simply not true, nor does it need to feel that way for you or your children.  I am specifically writing about rules around cellphones and the associated screen time. I do not think it is a secret that young people may want help managing screen time, including time on their phones. I base this on 25 years of conversations with kids, tweens, and teens, and their parents. If you do not believe me, grab some screen time for yourself and research studies on this topic. The studies support this.  

Of course, the odds of you hearing your child, or any child for that matter, tell you that they want rules is slim to not at all. The fact is life has rules. Our kids follow rules in life all the time. We all follow rules all the time. 

Recently, a parent of one of my basketball players shared with me that they were thinking about getting their 15-year-old daughter a smartphone. This would be an upgrade from the dreaded flip phone, such a humiliating piece of tech to carry with you! They felt comfortable in doing so as she met all of their prequalifications. She had good grades, did not get into mischief outside of school and was entering high school. I told them that that all sounded reasonable, yet they did not sound convinced. 

I was correct, they were not certain. All of the usual “what if’s” came to the surface. Do not get me wrong; when all four of our children came to “phone age,” it scared me to death. They have access to anything that they want. It is so easy to get into trouble. They can connect to good and not so good people with the push of a button. To be certain, all scary stuff from a parent’s perspective! If we, as parents, just apply the brakes for a second, there is a way to get through this. We have done it before, and, as long as we have children, will need to do it again.

If this parental responsibility were in constitution form, it would be Article I, Section I. They needed to set up expectations and ground rules around the phone. That is what they wanted me to tell them, that it was ok to do so. They asked me if I thought it was good to ask their daughter to write down the reasons she wanted a smart phone and, why she thought they might be concerned about her getting one. I reassured them that these were great ideas. I encouraged them to ask her to write some possible rules and ideas about good smart phone safety and her responsibility to practice it. I also encouraged them to share consequences for breaking any of the rules.

I know plenty of parents who have asked their kids to have such a conversation before allowing a phone, and their kids refused. Of course, that can happen. In that case, a parent has two options; drive the conversation more, or their child is not ready for a phone, which is okay. 

I wanted to share parts of conversations I have had with my four children and throw in some of my thoughts along the way.

The first thing that I learned about phone rules and my children is that any rules needed to apply across the board to all of them. Involving the kids, allowing all to participate in the conversation is important, even if they are not ready for their own phone. Have the “sibs” as my youngest calls them, work together to develop rules and such. In reality, the kids will eventually be on their phones together playing games, for example.

Another important distinction to make while working on this with the children is clearly delineating between wants and needs. Rights verses privileges. Listed needs were being able to call when emergencies happen. Get them to give examples of emergencies. My kiddos listed missing a ride, needing to stay after school or practice or coordinate activities. Then we came to wants like playing games, music, videos, talking to friends and social media. I believe it beneficial to have a line drawn separating their phone as a tool and their phone as a toy. 

I encourage parents in my classes or whenever I get asked for advice to make sure that the children understand that though there are needs, having a phone is a privilege, not a right. In no way are you entitled to a phone. Now, if you have “little lawyers” like me, you will hear all about the safety hazards of such a refusal, possibly such a decision would border on being criminal! It is good to remind them that as their parents, we can give them a phone because we feel they have earned it, but we can also take it away if they have abused the privilege. Complete this discussion with getting their buy in by asking if all of this makes sense.

If you are like me, then your children will agree with that basic understanding. I encourage you to dive into the rules that they developed. Tell them that they are good ones. The other important thing to remember is to share with the kids that we will start with stricter rules, and the longer you guys use your phones and demonstrate responsible behavior with phones, the more we can relax those rules. If you guys are abusing or pushing the boundaries with the use of the phones, the rules will stay strict or maybe even get stricter. Again, get their buy in and commitment. Does this make sense?  

A topic we cannot overlook as parents is the relationship about the phone and school. In my situation, we needed to talk about this since phone use was not allowed in school during school hours. My kids listed where they would keep their phone during school time, which, I thought was insightful. Therefore, you would keep it in your backpack. And if you took it out and use it inappropriately in class, like when you’re supposed to be doing homework, then you would first get a warning. Then if you did it again, the phone would be taken away. By the school and at home. Can you live with this? Again, the buy in is important. Kids want clear expectations with clear sanctions.

Back to my “little lawyers.” Your kids may come at you with “what if it’s an emergency during school?” Reaffirm their question and tell them that there may be emergencies but that it will still be the parent or school’s final say on the matter. In the end, I was pleased happy that they were thinking about phone use at school at all.   

Another helpful area to think about is a rule getting the tech out of their hands at night. Kids need 8-10 hours of sleep to be at their best. “Hanging out” on their phones in bed does not cut it! Talk about a rule that would require the cellphone out of the bedroom at night. Maybe decide that they go into a charging area in the kitchen. Pick a time about an hour before bedtime. Admittedly, this got much harder as they got older and homework requirements increased. In the end, it is something that my wife and I often remind our teen. We can monitor online time via our internet service. Of all the many struggles around tech time, I do not push for the hour before bedtime rule. It is great if a family can make that work, but I have not found major downsides to being on it before going into the bedroom to go to bed. 

Once in the bedroom, when it is time to sleep, through the years, the kids who don’t have tech with them in their bedroom tell me the many ways they relax to fall asleep, like reading. Often they say they are so tired they just fall right to sleep. Of course, if a child is doing something like some crazy, high action video game before bedtime, it may warrant your intervention via a new rule discussion.

When I began to discuss phones with my kids, I knew that things happen to phones. I had already dropped mine in the toilet, driven away with it on the roof of my car and crunched it by lying on it. Phones get broken. Phones get lost. So I talked to my children about what happens if their phones are damaged. They came up with great ideas here as well. Try your best to retrieve or fix the phone. Go through the trouble of trying to replace it and cover costs. And, my favorite, you and mom pay for it because we are just kids. 

In the end, we agreed that if it is really something that we all agree was outside of your control, or you did everything possible to take good care of your phone. Despite your best efforts, it’s gone forever. Then we will definitely help you with that. We also agreed on a carelessness clause. If you do not take care of it, then they would bear some responsibility for fixing the phone. This was another opportunity to help kids learn the value of taking care of their things. Taking care might mean they need to invest in a screen protector or case. Make them understand that with ownership comes investment.

Of course, this is not the end all, be all, to kids and tech. The key is to have open, honest conversations with your children. Be an active listener, reinforce good ideas, and help them refine shaky ones. In the end, helping our children understand our expectations and their responsibilities is the important thing. Providing them with clear rules is what they want, it’s no different than any adult and their employer. Phones/tech is not bad it gets bad when we do not have expectations for their use.

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