The optimistic parent's guide to kids and texting

How to raise smart, safe texters, and strengthen your relationship with your kids at the same time

It seems like every time I tune in to the afternoon radio show on my drive home from work, some parent is calling about a child in trouble for texting. Sometimes, the calls are innocuous — “Help! my kids are texting at the table!” Other times, they are frighteningly serious — “Help! My kid is sexting.”

Egad. Our mothers never had to deal with this stuff. So what do we do?

As scary as it all seems, there is a lot of hope. What I’ve discovered, by going to real-life, non-radio-show-calling-in moms and experts, is that texting can be a valuable parenting tool, and with the right guidance our kids can use it productively. Before we explore the good side of texting, though, there are important issues and strategies we need to know to equip ourselves to raise smart texters.

Knowledge is power

Lynn Hargrove, director of consumer solutions for computer security firm Symantec Canada, says parents need to know what their child’s phone does. Does it take pictures? What are the apps? Is there unlimited texting? Do the texts post to other social networks, like Facebook?

The days of simply keeping the computer in the living room are over. These days kids carry the computer in their pockets. As Hargrove insists, “Cellphones are going to outpace PCs in the next couple of years.”

Parent power plan Know what your child’s phone does, decide which apps or social networks you deem appropriate for your child’s age, needs and maturity level, and install mobile security software. Also, talk to your phone company if your child goes a little overboard on texting when she or he first gets a phone and your bill comes in a little (or a lot) high. They typically reduce or eliminate the cost — just this once — because it happens all the time!

To spy, or not to spy?

Toronto photographer and mom of two, Shelagh Howard, notes, “kids don’t telephone anymore. They text. When we grew up, we talked on the house phone, and parents could often check in on what we were talking about. So much goes on right under your roof and you don’t even know it.”

The radio talk show host I listen to insists parents install spyware and spy on their children’s virtual lives. But most of the parents I spoke to refuse to do that. Many say they randomly check their children’s texts (with the knowledge that kids will delete their texts), and that they are open about doing so with their children.

And experts agree with their choices. “Spying is an invasion of privacy regardless of the age of the person,” says parenting author and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer. “It implies deceit and it will create distance in any human relationship. We have to prove to our kids that we have their backs, and not act like the police officers of their lives.”

Parent power plan If you feel anxious about your child’s texting life, talk about it. Schafer suggests saying something like, “I am worried about what I hear people texting about and I want to make sure as my job as parent that this is not happening — so a condition of having a phone with texting is that I check it periodically.” And be proactive. “Taking away the phone if I feel things are getting out of control is important,” says Howard, “because she obviously needs to talk and reground before I’m comfortable letting her start texting again.” And Schafer and Howard both use examples in the media to discuss serious issues like bullying and sexting with their kids. We’re looking at you, Brett Favre and Tiger Woods.

Read on for the rules of engagement and to learn what’s GOOD about kids’ texting >

Rules of engagement

What kind of limits should you set? Here are few of Schafer’s basic texting rules for kids:

• Don’t write things you don’t want others to read.
• Don’t reply to strangers.
• If you’re sexting I promise it will come back to haunt you! Don’t go there.

Other parents I spoke to don’t allow phones in their children’s bedrooms past 9 p.m. Schafer never put such limits on her kids, “but we do talk about self restraint.”

Luckily most schools have a no-phones-in-the-classroom rule. Talk to your child’s school to find out its cell-phone policy. And, again, know what your child’s phone does. If your child can post texts to other social networking sites, for instance, then keep them safe by teaching them not to reveal their location.

Parent power plan Lay down the law, but be sure to listen to your child’s concerns as well. Hargrove suggests you say something like: “I promise not to make you have long texting conversations with me, as long as you respond to all of my texts as soon as you can.” After all, as Schafer says, texting should be “short, sweet and to the point.” Let that be your own rule of engagement for how you approach the conversation!

Mind your texting manners

Your mother could probably help you with texting manners because they’re the same rules she set around the telephone:

• No devices at the dinner table.
• No texting while you’re having a face-to-face conversation.

To get her children put their phones away at dinnertime, Schafer said, “I give the kids a five-minute heads up to say bbfn [bye-bye for now] to all their friends before coming to the table.” Think of it like a phone call. After all, it would be rude to just hang up on someone, so respect your kids’ friendships, and give them enough time to say goodbye nicely.

Parent power plan One of the best ways to teach texting manners is through our own actions. “Parents are as bad as kids,” Howard says. “No texting at the table for Mom or Dad either!”

The good in texting

There’s so much that’s positive about kids and texting. So, parents, get excited! Here’s what you have to look forward to:

Connection You can function on your kids’ level, which will help build your relationship. Schafer and I conducted our interview via text so she could demonstrate how “unguarded” texting conversations are. Indeed, as Howard put it, “If I can function on her level through texting, I have a better chance of keeping my connection with her when she’s out — which means a lot for her safety and my peace of mind.” And as a working mother, texting makes Schafer “feel more connected and less guilty about being away with work.”

Communication Parenting expert Kathy Buckworth loves texting with her kids because “teens can have a sarcastic tone when they speak to their moms, and apparently I can have quite a nagging tone to my voice,” she admits. “Texting takes away tone. I have polite, fun and loving conversations that I don’t always have with them in person.” Buckworth also says her kids are more likely to “approach more sensitive subjects with me via text, which lays great groundwork for in-person discussions.”

Curfew help “If my teen son is out and past his curfew,” Buckworth adds, “I can text him to remind him to come home, and he can respond without his friends knowing mom is on the phone.”

Escape route “If my daughter needs help,” says Howard, “she can tell me without people around her knowing how she’s feeling.

Convenience Schafer loves “texting to say ‘I am in the parking lot’ or ‘check the fridge: do we need milk?’”

Love notes And she covets the “little one-liners from my teens — sharing their day/mood. Things I wouldn’t hear end of day.”

Despite what you hear in the media texting isn’t all bad. Informed parents can successfully guide their children through this technological terrain with a few basic rules, open communication, some random checks now and then, and by staying informed about the capabilities of your child’s phone. Good luck, and may the force be with you!

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