Archives for posts with tag: kids

Did you know your exact location can be pinpointed from pictures you post online? That with a simple, free, downloadable software, anyone can determine your address, your kids’ daycare, their favourite ice cream spot, even where their bedrooms are in your house or apartment?

If that sounds like the rumblings of paranoia, think again. Watch this news segment to see exactly how experts were able to simply and effectively plot all this information based on the pictures parents took on their smartphone cameras and posted online.

It’s pretty scary stuff. Although I would normally assume this kind of thing was another Internet hoax, the link was forwarded to me by a trusted source at Ometz, an organization in which I have enormous trust and respect. I know they checked this out very carefully.

Immediately after watching the segment, I checked out the site they recommend (www.Icanstalku.com) to learn more. This explained how this cyberstalking is even possible. The answer is metadata, which means the extra information typically embedded in a data file, but hidden from casual viewing. Turns out when we take pictures on our smartphones, we are generally also recording information about the photographer, camera settings (like ISO, aperture or processing software). Since many of today’s smartphones are also GPS-enabled, and since the default setting is to allow location recording, it also embeds information about where the picture was taken. This is also called Geotagging.

Take a deep breath. You can easily change this. The same website offers a useful series of steps for changing this default setting on most smartphones.  Click here and find your smartphone (and your kids’ smartphones) on the list. Follow the steps and make the changes.

Be aware that changing the default will affect your abilities to use GPS and mapping apps on your phone. When you want to use those, you can change the settings back temporarily.

Of course, making these changes affects all future pictures taken and posted. I can’t offer you too much in the way of reassurance about the pictures you’ve already snapped and uploaded to the Internet. You can try and retrace your steps and remove them, but there’s no guarantee they haven’t been copied and reposted in other places.

Like many things online, we learn as we go. It’s an admittedly uncomfortable feeling for parents.

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This past weekend, my husband took our 12-year-old twin daughters camping and hiking in what has become an annual fall ritual we’ve come to call “Daddy Camping.” He takes our younger daughter for a similar outing each spring.

Martin started camping and hiking alone with the girls when they were three years old. When they go Daddy Camping, they climb mountains, eat a lot of marshmallows and don’t worry so much about things like vegetables or brushing their teeth. There is no homework brought along, no iPads, DS games or cellphones to play on.

After the first Daddy camping experience 9 years ago, one of his good friends decided to join the trip with his daughter. A year or two later, another dad and daughter combo joined in. This core group of four girls just started high school and their heads are full of sports teams, play auditions and friend dramas, but they were more excited than ever to head off together for this year’s Daddy Camping adventure.

Martin takes his hiking very seriously, and these girls (and their younger sisters in springtime) have hiked some serious peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York: Algonquin, Giant Mountain and in recent years Mount Washington and Franconia Ridge. Because they go in late September or October, they have encountered below freezing temperatures and snow. They bring down sleeping bags and winter coats, waterproof hiking boots and full body rain gear.

He calls this the Anti-Princess Training Program.

This year’s trip was particularly ambitious. They hiked slept in a lean-to in the Adirondack State Park, then awoke early to tackle Mount Colden on Saturday, a mostly rainy 13-mile, 11-hour roundtrip. One of the girls in the group has battled a fear of heights over the years, which has sometimes resulted in her not reaching the summit, but this year she made it all the way to the top. Her friends were so proud of her, and she was very proud of herself.

The next day, they did a second hike on their way home: a much flatter 10-mile hike at Indian Head, to a spectacular view of Ausable Lake. The girls were very tired and sore from the day before, feeling the effects of two nights’ sleeping outdoors. About 15 minutes from the top, some of them refused to go on. The dads understood. They were tired themselves, effects somewhat more magnified in their 40+ year-old bodies. The girls had already achieved so much and had every right to be pleased with their efforts.

But my husband was not satisfied. He has an amazing tolerance for physical discomfort and doesn’t always realize that others don’t share this. He urged our two girls to make the final push for the top, which they did (one of them somewhat reluctantly). But when they got there, they were stunned by the view. They sat down and share a break with their dad.

I like to imagine this time, just the three of them alone on a mountain peak without me there to narrate and annotate our experience in my usual chatty way. Martin is a man of few words. I’m pretty sure he didn’t waste any of them describing the view. They had a snack. Took some pictures. But this kind of togetherness doesn’t need to be verbalized to be real and important and memorable.

I know he was so proud of them for making that final push. I know they were proud of themselves for doing it. Pleased to have lived up to — perhaps even surpassed — his expectations. I know he didn’t say that aloud, just as I know he communicated it to them in some other way. A grunt, maybe. A nod.

When they climb mountains with their daughters, these dads are showing them so many rich and important things. At the most basic level, they get the experience of nature, appreciate the value of conservation and ecological awareness. They’ve learned about planning ahead, plotting their routes, registering with the warden’s office, bringing along enough water, food and snacks to keep them going. They have band aids, moleskin, first aid kits, extra socks, emergency survival blankets and flashlights with extra batteries (they’ve come back down from some hikes in the dark).

These girls are also learning that their dads value time with them. Research has demonstrated that fatherly affirmation (warmth, interest, support) has a measurable impact on teenage girls’ self-esteem, and on their ability to develop strong intimate relationships. There is also a connection between the relationships girls have with their fathers and how high they set their career goals, how well they deal with people in authority, maintaining good mental health, being self-reliant and willing to take on new challenges.

Our girls have learned important things about the strength and capabilities of their growing bodies. They are strong enough to carry themselves farther than they ever dreamed, to push themselves beyond new limits. Because even when you are tired and sore, and your knee is scraped and your ankle turned and your clothes wet, sometimes there’s still two more hours to cover to get back to the car. And you don’t feel like you can do it, but you can. And somehow you do.

The only way out is to push on through.

This is an endurance that is not just physical, but mental and emotional. Spiritual.

These are core values in building resilience: developing confidence, competence, control, connection.

And when it’s over, they have the memories. These last forever. They are special things they’ve shared with their dad that exclude me, and I love hearing them tell the stories of their hikes and campgrounds. The year they jumped into the lake with their clothes on. The lean-to that somehow had no bugs in it. The hike that ended so late they actually went to a restaurant for dinner instead of cooking on their campfire.

I’ve also heard these girls recount the stories of their epic climbs with their dads to other friends. They emphasize the grizzlier details (“And at the top, there’s a list of all the people who’ve died climbing Mount Washington”), finish each other’s sentences with details about sharp rocks, sudden snow. They compare different fire towers. Which climb had the worst weather. They take a peculiar pleasure in shared misery.

I like to think of these trips as a kind of glue. When the hormones rage in the coming years, the eyes roll, the battles ensue over skirt lengths and curfews and car keys, they’ll all be stronger for having collected these mountaintops together.

Should your preschooler be taught about the dangers of smoking? Is kindergarten too young to start talking about alcohol? Does your 8-year-old need to learn about illegal drugs?

Parents often ask me whether it’s possible to give too much information about risky activities, or whether there are clear-cut rules on what kids of different ages should be taught. This is particularly a concern for parents with their younger children, who worry that having older siblings might expose them to this information before they are ready.

Hear are a few guidelines on how to handle this:

Talk: early, often, frankly. Instead of having the dreaded “Talk” about sex, smoking, drugs or alcohol when you feel your kid is ready to handle it, you should make talking frankly about these things fit into regular, on-going (age-appropriate) discussions from the time they are old enough to follow a conversation. See a “No Smoking” sign in a restaurant? Point it out. Someone uses the word “drunk” and she wants to know what it means, explain it using simple words (such as “When someone drinks too much wine or beer they act silly and can get into big trouble”).

Preschoolers should know that smoking is bad for your health. They should understand that we only take medicines that the doctor, a parent or trusted caregiver offers them to get better (small children may mistake colourful pills for candy, so this is an important one). They should start to learn your family’s values about drinking. Maybe you avoid all alcohol. Maybe you have a beer now and again. Maybe you drink wine to mark certain religious holidays or ceremonies.

Kids 5 and under should be taught the correct terms for their body parts, so they can speak up clearly if someone touches them inappropriately. It’s been suggested that pedophiles tend to avoid children who know the right words for body parts, because they are used to speaking frankly with their parents and thus more likely to report on the abuse.

School-aged children can be given more information about these things, and you should introduce knowledge about illegal drug use. They should also be given information about the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and have regular discussion about peer pressure. As they get older, you’ll need to provide more detailed information. We know kids as young as 9 or 10 can be gambling (poker or online) – discuss the risks when they are young enough to listen.

Keep their maturity level in mind when deciding how much detail to give: A child in second grade doesn’t necessarily need to know what pot or ecstasy are; a child in fifth grade really does. And if you find yourself talking too much and your kids’ eyes have started to glaze over in boredom, stop. Reassess. Pick it up later in a simpler way.

Listen: without judgment, for what they are really asking or trying to tell you, for insight into their concerns. Don’t go in with your own agenda. Don’t dominate the discussion. Make sure you are actually sure what they want to know before you bombard them with more information than they need.

Start with addressing their questions in simple terms. A four-year-old who wants to know if smoking can make you die doesn’t need to know about nicotine addiction or hear words like cancer or emphysema. They may simply be worried about a beloved uncle, and want reassurance that if he stops, he can get healthier. Or that there are doctors who can help him. Or that it’s really, really hard to stop smoking once you start, so we need to be patient.

Give information is small, easy-to-manage increments. Use age-appropriate words. If they ask questions and want to know more, it’s OK to follow their lead.

Inform yourself: Make sure you know what you’re talking about. There are many excellent books, pamphlets and websites for parents seeking to know more about teens and high-risk behaviors.

Parents sometimes worry about their children’s innocence, making them grow up prematurely with this information. But if you don’t tell them, they will learn from friends, television, music and the world around this. You can’t guarantee that they will get the correct information. More importantly, you missing the opportunity to provide your own values and moral framework.

Parents are sometimes shocked to learn how young kids are when they first experiment with smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling (typically grades 5, 6 and 7). Since we know that the younger kids are when they start, the higher the risk of developing problems, we need to try and put off that initial experimentation as long as possible (if not avoid it altogether).

According to the 2008 Quebec Survey on Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs and Gambling in High School Students conducted by L’insitut de la
statistique du Quebec, young people who experiment with smoking, alcohol, drugs or gambling had:

  • Their first cigarette at the age of 12.7 years (40% of kids will try smoking before high school)
  • Their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 12.6 years
  • Their first experience with marijuana at 13.4 years
  • Their first experience with gambling as early as 11.6 years.

Other research suggests that 7th grade is the typical starting point for experimentation with oral sex (which 40% of teens believe doesn’t qualify as “sex”).

And what about those younger siblings who seem to know way too much, way too soon? Truth is, there isn’t that much you can do about it if they have older siblings around. But instead of mourning their precociousness and premature loss of innocence, remember that knowledge is power. If your kids are well-informed, they are less likely to believe the rumours, dangerous half-truths and misinformation circulated in the schoolyard.

They will be better prepared to resist trying things that could get them into big trouble. And that, ultimately, is the goal we all need to keep in mind.

 

Had a fabulous time at the Montreal Families Magazine Parenting Workshop this past Sunday. We were thrilled to see a capacity crowd of concerned moms (and some dads) come out to hear me and study skills expert Carolyn Melmed speak on a gorgeous, sunny September afternoon.

A number of great questions came out of the audience after my presentation, some of which I’ve heard from parents before. I figure if one parent is wondering or worrying about something, chances are there are plenty of others out there with the same question, so I’m going to focus on them one at a time in upcoming blog posts. Today’s subject is a really common question – what is the right age to let our kids get Facebook accounts?

The answer to this depends on a few things — your child’s interest, maturity levels, responsibility, readiness as well as your personal values and comfort with technology. Just as it would be impossible to answer a question about what is the right age for learning how to read or developing an interest in romantic relationships, knowing when to let your kids onto Facebook depends on a number of factors.

First of all, Facebook itself has determined that kids under 13 should not become members, and they state this on their registration page. Getting around that is as simple as fudging the birth year information (which is always a good idea for privacy and identity theft reasons anyway), but parents have to feel comfortable with breaking this simple rule. Some parents are not.

Next you have ask what they intend to do on the site. If it’s mostly for the gaming, well, there are plenty of other games on the Internet (and on gaming systems), but the truth is that Facebook games are a relatively harmless way to spend time on the site. Raising virtual potatoes on Farmville is no one’s definition of risky behaviour.

If they want it because “everyone else has it,” I’m sympathetic but skeptical. First of all, not everyone has it, but an awful lot of kids do. And it’s hard (but not impossible or even inadvisable) to resist the tremendous adolescent social pressure to be like everyone else. I’ve only recently forgiven my parents for banning television on school days when I was a kid. Missing the previous evening’s broadcast of Charlie’s Angels certainly had repercussions in the schoolyard the next day, but my grades steadily improved without the distraction. And I turned out mostly OK.

How do you think your kids will manage its addictive powers? If you will have to constantly negotiate their time on Facebook, if it will cut into homework, face-to-face socialization, school, family time or reading, then think this through carefully. You may need to set up strict rules for when and how long they can be on. You will need to establish consistent consequences for breaking these rules. You will need to stick to them.

Talk to them about cyberbullying. Talk about respecting others, handling themselves with dignity. Discuss the fact that stuff on the Internet is impossible to erase. That things can be copied and forwarded an infinite number of times. They should never, ever post anything they wouldn’t want their teacher to see. Or their grandmother. Or their future boss. Or their future children.

Talk about how nuance and irony don’t play out so well in typed comments. It’s easy to misunderstand something that was meant to be a joke. They need to understand how they can easily hurt someone else through ignorance.

Are you concerned about your kids’ privacy online? You should be. Consider getting them to creatively misspell their name or use a pseudonym their friends will know. Set up a Google alert with this name too. Inform yourself about Facebook’s many privacy controls and stay abreast of new developments. Configure them to the highest degree of privacy, which still allows friends to view their posts and picture: for “only friends” (not “friends of friends”). I’m working on a post about how to do this, in case you don’t feel comfortable figuring it out on your own, so stay tuned.

Link their account to your email and keep a record of their password. Many kids resist this, but it’s a basic requirement in my eyes. You will get all notifications of friend requests, posts and tagged pictures. You will not need to read the vast majority of them (which would be a chore), but you will be able to monitor their activity quite easily.

Insist they friend you. And never, ever comment on their walls or posts. Having a parent is just too embarrassing for words when you are 12 or 14, so respect that.

Occasionally review their home feeds (also called news feeds) with them. Not as a punishment or lecture, but as a conversation. What are their friends talking about? What kind of language is used? Does anything make them or you uncomfortable? Talk about that.

As time goes on, and they demonstrate consistent responsibility, they can earn more and freedom. You will need to do these things less often. They can earn their privacy, their passwords, the right to link their account to their own email. Don’t abuse the freedom you are given, but keep a close eye until you feel confident they are capable of handling themselves appropriately.

All of this begs the question: “What is risky behaviour?” In a nutshell, it’s activities that could potentially lead to harm, both for your child or those around them. It can interfere with other normal activities in their lives. It can cause them to make poor choices. It can be immoral, illegal or unhealthy.

So where would Facebook fit into that definition?

One research study found that spending time on Facebook tends to lower kids’ grades, promote narcissistic tendencies and lead to anxiety and depression. But the same study also found that the social media site can help kids hone their empathetic tendencies by offering each other support online. They also found it could help introverted teens learn how to interact with others in a way that made them feel more comfortable.

There are a lot of reasons why parents might not want their kids on Facebook until they feel they are old enough. Some parents just try to delay it as long as possible. There is so simple pat answer to this question.

What did I do? Well, as I wrote in this Montreal Families Magazine article, I allowed my twins to sign on to Facebook when they were 11 years old. My husband and I felt we could use it as an opportunity to regularly monitor what they were up to (11-year-olds are far more compliant than 13-year-olds, as a general rule), and it would open many possibilities for discussion and dialogue. Which it has. We’ve been very happy with this decision. But our 8-year-old is a different kid, requiring a different set of parenting strategies, and we aren’t so sure the same approach will work for her down the line.

You need to find your own comfort zone. You need to explain your rational to your child. And you need to maintain a careful eye on how they are handling this tremendous responsibility.

One of best things about summertime is the invitation to embrace a bit of laziness. Our hectic winter schedules get put aside. We can sleep in on hot summer mornings and stay up late on hot summer nights. There are no battles over homework, mealtimes tend to be later and more informal and there is generally less tension all around as we relax into a slower pace of life for a few precious weeks.

In between our travels and the occasional week at a summer camp, we settle in up at our favourite place in the whole world, a family cottage by a lake in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal. It’s very comfy, but certainly more rustic than our city life. The 3 girls share one room and everyone has to pitch in to keep the smaller space uncluttered and habitable. My parents are often there as well, and 3 generations under one small-ish roof means lots of wonderful memories and also a need for consideration and compromise.

While we do have both cable television and wifi at the cottage, we strongly encourage everyone spend most of their time outdoors. The girls initially bristle when I put limitations on screen time, since they don’t have homework or other demands, but we all gradually settle in to a slower pace of life. Shelves of toys accumulated over the years generally go untouched. We do a lot of reading. We swim or hang out with friends and family. We spend a lot of time making and eating food.

An every once in a while, when someone whines about how bored they are, I’m secretly very pleased.

I’m a big fan of bored kids. Boredom is the catalyst for creativity. Boredom is the reason they scour the recycling pile for old newspapers, which they rip into shred ands dip in a gloopy flour and water mixture to make papier mache. Boredom is the engine behind the elaborate homemade board games they invent, and then forget the next week. Boredom is the only way our dog gets groomed or taught new tricks. Boredom leads to all sorts of experiments in the kitchen, many involving chocolate, some of which were even edible.  We’ve had treasure hunts invented, imaginary maps created, treehouses built.

Famous writers, from Nelson Mandela, to Martin Luther King, Jr., O. Henry and Antonio Gramsci, used the enforced idleness of their imprisonment to create some of the most important and enduring ideas and stories of our time.

There is a big difference between kids who are constructively bored and negatively numbed, however. We need to remember that boredom itself is a very modern concept. Prior to the 19th century, only the wealthiest people had any idle time on their hands, since simply eking out an existence required constant effort. A combination of labour-saving devices, the modern electronic entertainment industry and a coddled approach to child-rearing has left ou kids — and ourselves — expecting constant stimulation. I see it with my university students, who expect their professors to keep their attention with elaborate multimedia presentations and interactive activities.

Kids who are bored might initially spend more time bickering, but then realize they need to depend on each other to find something to do. My daughters have spent long afternoons by the lake engaged in made-up activities together, when they might otherwise not be able to endure even the 10-minute ride home from school in each others’ company.

Kids who are bored need to learn to figure out how to occupy themselves. They need to be creative, a quality that is notoriously difficult to teach. In fact, some suggest that too much conventional teaching actually erodes the natural creativity of children.  The satirist P.J O’Rourke famously declared colleges to be places where “pebbles are polished and diamonds are dulled.”

The unstructured time we give our kids helps them explore their inner and outer worlds. It requires effort on their part to figure out what they want to do. It is ungraded, un-evaluated and unremarked upon by anyone other than themselves. It offers freedom, but can be intimidating to kids who are used to be stimulated, to getting toys that instruct them to follow rules to predetermined ends. It takes a bit of practice to get good at being bored.

The tricky part is that sometimes we parents need to be involved. We aren’t so good at being bored either. Sometimes our kids who claim to be bored need a bit of parental bonding. Or they need supplies or ingredients or a supervisory eye while they play capture the flag with canoes.

It’s a good lesson for all of us. And lazy summer afternoons are the best time to do this kind of learning.

Your messages are waiting.

My newly minted 8-year-old chose today as her mental health day. I give each of my girls one “free” day a year, when they get to take off school and hang out with me, doing whatever they like. It can get a bit complicated with my work schedule, but basically they get most of the day to sleep in, get more than their usual 30 minutes allotment of daily screentime, go for lunch, a walk with the dog, a trip to the library, etc.

It can be a bit of a challenge to fit in one-on-one time with three kids, so this is a little bonus for all of us. One day a year may not seem like much, but it does feel very special when it finally comes round.

So my little one and I hung around the house all morning, and I have to admit that I squeezed in some work on the computer while she parked her brain in front of the Family channel. I did feel a teeny bit guilty about this, but she was very happy to have uninterrupted access to the TV for a bit.

She chose a nice brunch type place for lunch and when we were handed the menus, my cellphone buzzed. She rolled her eyes and looked frustrated.

“Promise me no talking or texting during our lunch.”

Ouch. That hurt. I know I’m a bit of a Crackberry addict, but here it was out of the mouths of babes.

I promised her not to touch it, and I put it in my purse so the blinking red light wouldn’t torment me through the meal. It was really, really hard not to pick it up. But I managed it. And we had a great conversation about turning 8 and what she’s been reading and we squeezed in several rounds of hangman on our Nutella-stained paper placemats (I take my kids to the fanciest places.)

But her insightful comment made me think about the whole phenomenon of “half-attention,” where our parenting time gets diluted into the “hmmmmms?” and “reallys?” and “OKs” we dole out while our brains are actually tuned into the email or Facebook feeds on our cellphones.

Kids pick up on this from a very young age. They know when mom or dad is not really paying attention. And very soon, dear parents, often sooner than you think, they will have their own cellphones. And when you ask them what happened at school that day, they will answer “hmmmmm?” while typing madly on their own screens.

Ask yourself:

  • How often are you talking on your cellphone when your kids are in the car, instead of talking to them?
  • Do you allow your telephone to disturb you during family dinners?
  • Do you check your email and/or Facebook or Twitter feeds while watching your kid’s soccer game, hanging out at the playground or taking them out to restaurants?
  • Do your children or spouse ever have to ext you to get your attention, even when you are all under the same roof?
  • Have you recently found yourself looking at your phone instead of your child while s/he is talking to you?
  • Have you ever looked up from your phone to realize your kid had given up on your attention and wandered off to do something on their own, and you didn’t even notice?
  • Or worse, especially with little kids: Have you ever looked up from your phone to find they have gotten themselves in an unsafe situation, an altercation with another kid, or just taken off without you?

If you’ve answered yes to two or more, you might want to think about the impact your cellphone habits are having on your family relationships. After all, you are ultimately the one in control, and it is possible to turn it off, or down or put it away during key moments. Because your messages will still be waiting for you after dinner, or your daughter’s swim meet, or the playground.