How do you teach your child what is and is not acceptable regarding telephone use? Is there a secret for cultivating respect for one of the most popular appliances in your home? The following suggestions should help you instill a sense of caution without pressing too many panic buttons.
Start Young and Build
Start as soon as you think a child is capable of answering a phone, and establish rules for use. "Begin with practice calls," says Evelyn Petersen, parenting columnist and author of Growing Responsible Kids (Totline Books, 1997). "Ask a family member to call and have them give a message."
Lisa Bacon, of New Zealand, agrees that practice makes perfect. "I think you can tell a child something until he is blue in the face, but children learn a lot more by doing, and that applies to phone skills as well as anything else," she says. "Basically [my children are] encouraged to answer the phone if I am busy. So I am semi-teaching them as they are doing it. After the call I explain to them, for example, how to announce themselves on the phone instead of just saying 'Hello,' and how to nicely ask who is calling instead of 'Who is it?'"
Establish and Follow Routines
Petersen recommends establishing the following safety precautions and procedures for telephone use:
Keep a spiral-bound notebook and pencil beside the phone for messages. "Loose messages get lost too easily," she says. If your entire family uses the notebook system, it becomes the standard to check "the book" for incoming calls. By the time your child is 10, they should be pretty comfortable with recording the time and date, who called, what the message is and a phone number to return the call.
Don't be afraid to give your children the exact words to use. Prompt your kids to ask if the call is for sales. If it is, have them respond with a standard phrase, like: "Please take our name off of your list. We don't take sales calls, thank you." And then hang up.
Surge-protect your phone for use in severe weather such as lightning storms. This is just an extra precaution. The telephone itself is a remarkably safe instrument. The downside comes in the way it can be used to intimidate or abuse.
That is why it is important to also teach the following safety rules:
Establish how to answer the phone when home alone. "Mom and Dad can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?" Petersen suggests you coach your children to take the initiative when talking to strangers on the telephone. Don't answer questions; ask them instead, she says.
"Phone conversations can be a way for a person with bad intent to assess a child's vulnerability," says Lauren Taylor, a child safety and adult self-defense instructor in Washington, D.C. "It's important for kids to learn that they don't always have to answer the questions of an adult."
Have your child practice responses, she says, such as:
Child: "My mom can't come to the phone right now. May I take a message?"
Keeping phone calls brief and not giving out any unnecessary information is a key element in phone safety. Teach your kids to hang up immediately if they hear strange sounds, cursing or any other obscene noises, and make sure they know to inform you of any such calls right away.
"Most phone books list tips for dealing with such calls," says Rob Morley, a corporate safety consultant with Telus Corporation in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. "It's important for parents to review these tips with their kids. As a parent, when I'm out working in the garage and my boys are at home, they know to look at the caller identification feature on the phone. If they don't recognize the number, they don't answer."
Another important issue is how to use the phone correctly in an emergency. Numbers should be visibly posted (or entered in the speed-dialing feature of the phone set) for parents' cell phones, neighbors, police, fire and ambulance. When calling 9-1-1, kids should know that it's vital to state not only the nature of the emergency and where they live, but to ask if there is anything else they need to provide before hanging up. As with any phone call, be sure of the number before dialing.
Develop Life Skills
Answering the phone politely, taking messages and using the phone in an emergency are basic skills that will be used throughout a lifetime. Another life lesson can be taught with regards to long distance, 1-900 and operator-assisted calls. Parents need to address the family policy regarding such calls, discuss what is appropriate and what isn't and be prepared to follow up.
"If a child knowingly places a call that will have charges [without their parent's permission], they should be made to pay it back," Petersen says. "Use the phone as an opportunity to teach life skills." By being made accountable for their actions, kids will learn that paying bills is an unpleasant, but unavoidable, reality of life.