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My tween has had a cell phone for just about a year now and besides the occasional Minion Rush or Pinterest binge, my husband and I have been really happy with how things have gone. (By the way, the tween-ness of Minion Rush and Pinterest being her top two phone uses is not lost on me.) Last week, I was telling a friend about how pleased we have been with how this milestone has gone so far, and she asked about whether or not we use a cell phone contract for kids with her. The answer is that yes, we do. But the reason that we do, may surprise you, like it did her.

It all started with this: Toward the end of last summer, our family went for a night swim. It was one of those glorious nights where the sun was setting, the air was warm, and everyone was getting along. During one of the “safety breaks,” we took a family selfie. We actually took about six selfies because the chances of five people all getting into the frame, looking at the camera, at the same time, on the first (second or third) try, are slim. After we got a fair number of photos, we jumped back into the water and stayed until the pool closed.

On the way home, I got everyone’s approval to post the selfie on Instagram, and then that’s exactly what I did. I will be perfectly honest with you and admit that when I picked which of the six options to post, I chose the one that we looked the most “together” in and the one that I thought that I looked the best in, without necessarily looking at everyone else’s facial expressions.

When we got home and everyone dispersed to take out the dog and to shower and to change and, apparently, to check their phones, my daughter found the picture on Instagram, and instantly hated it.

This fact and what happened next is what led us to deciding to use a family cell phone contract, a contract between parents and children, a contract between us and her.

My daughter told me that she hated the photo. She didn’t ask me to do anything about it, but she did take that first step and spoke up about not liking what I had posted. I was so proud of her.

Maneuvering this kind of situation can not only be awkward, but the territory is so new that oftentimes our kids, and us parents, don’t have the words that we need to use waiting on the tips of our tongues. Where we can lean back on the, “Say please”; and “Would you like to play?”; and, “Ask if you can have a turn,” that we remember being taught by our parents and teachers in our youth, “Can you please delete that picture?” isn’t something that we have been teaching our kids to say since they were little. This is new terrain for all of us.

So that night, facing her across our kitchen counter, looking like she has looked post-swimming since I was the one who was taller than her, I gave her the language to tell me what I had done wrong and how she’d like me to fix it. 

I told her that she did the exact the right thing and that she always has the right to ask to not have a photo put online. And then I asked her if she’d like me to delete the photo. At first, she shrugged. She was noncommittal and probably wanting to please. I pressed on. Because this won’t be the only time that someone posts a picture of her online that she dislikes. And chances are she’ll post pictures of others that they dislike as well. So we talked about that, too.

Teaching our kids how to talk about social media, how to call people out for their social media mistakes, how to ask for changes to social media posts is akin to teaching them how to drive. We would never talk about driving once, in passing, without eye contact or practice before handing our kids car keys. Conversations about social media are the exact same. They require practice.

So the real reason that our family uses a cell phone contract isn’t to set the ground rules for who pays for what or when our daughter can use her phone and when she can’t. Although these are, absolutely, important details to hammer out. But we use our cell phone contract to set the expectations for how to treat others online and to give us the language to hold each other accountable for maneuvering online wisely and kindly and to give us the grounding to come back to when one of us makes a mistake, which we absolutely will again and again.

Galit Breen is the author of Kindness Wins, a no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online, and of the Kindness Wins Parent-Child Cell Phone Contract. Galit blogs at TheseLittleWaves.com and tweets at @GalitBreen.

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