The age of cell phone ownership is getting younger and younger. It seems like one day our kids are tapping away on their Fisher Price toy cell phones, then begging for a real phone the next.

If you’re like me, you were probably caught off-guard with your child’s request for a cell phone— and hesitant to usher him or her across the border of the great technological divide. We all know that once kids cross over, there’s no turning back.

Of course, there are many pros to equipping our children with cell phones. I broke down and bought one for my youngest child when he entered 8th grade. It provided me with a means to track him down at any given moment, and gave him the ability to contact me should he have an emergency. Whether my son was on his way home from a field trip or simply running late after school, I liked the convenience of being informed when it came to his whereabouts.

Now, a year later, I can’t imagine life without my son’s cell phone. Just last week, we were at a high school football game and my son sat with his friends in a different part of the large stadium. At the end of the game with just a minute left on the clock, I saw my husband dig through his pocket for his phone, punch in my son’s number and tell him to head in our direction so we three didn’t get stuck in the traffic. Were my son to lose his phone, I’m not sure who would be more inconvenienced at this point— him or us.

When you determine that your child is old enough to give a cell phone a go, it’s always best to start slow. Look at cell phone use like training wheels on a bike: Just as you would never move a child straight from a tricycle to a ten-speed bike and give him a gentle push down the street for his first solo ride, you shouldn’t hand your child a cell phone with unlimited minutes and text messaging capabilities, Web access, the ability to send and receive pictures and videos, and round-the-clock freedom with no supervision. Begin with a basic package, and work your way up.

Rules help monitor cell phone use, too. Initially, consider only allowing children to use cell phones for emergency purposes, with a few pre-approved people on their call list. Let children know you will be checking the bill to make sure they are not abusing the privilege. When children are young, you might also consider keeping their phones at bedtime.

I was amazed at how many children text at all hours— many without their parents’ knowledge. Gone are the days where the home phone was tethered to the living room wall, and Mom and Dad were the mighty gatekeepers. Kids today typically can’t recite their friends’ home phone numbers, even if you offer them a cash prize. And, given that Mom and Dad are no longer the middlemen regarding phone use, it is up to us parents to stay plugged in.

As your children get older and prove their responsibility with a basic cell phone package, consider adding features like text messaging and the ability to call people outside their “emergency” network.

Most importantly, sit children down and go over the rules and guidelines. Consider developing a “contract” outlining expections. Of course, training our kids to use technology responsibly is an ongoing task and, therefore, terms of the contract need to be revisited and revised over the years. Take advantage of teachable moments by discussing current stories that surface in the news regarding cell phone use. Actual events, whether stories related to texting and driving fatalities or ruined reputations over sending illicit photos, often make a greater impact on our kids than a mere parent lecture.

Finally, become a texter yourself. By the time your child reaches age 16, his or her phone will likely be a primary lifeline with text messages as the primary language. Texts offer a great way to communicate with your children and stay engaged in their lives. My husband and I often send our kids encouraging text messages to remind them that they are loved. Recently, my husband sent my high school-aged daughter a sweet text message while she was in the backseat of my car with a friend. When my daughter’s phone chimed alerting her to the new message, her friend asked her who had sent the message. She replied, “Oh it was just my Dad telling me he loves me.” Her friend responded, “That’s sooooo cute. I wish my Dad would do that!”

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