Things to Consider When Giving Your Child a Cellphone

Group Of Young Children Hanging Out In Playground

How and when to give a child a cell phone of their own is a big decision for parents. The bulk of research suggests that the less screen time children have the better. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests having a family plan with set limits on screen use. Giving them a cell phone is putting a screen, often with a camera and the internet, in their pocket. Setting limits becomes that much more challenging.

I’ve met three-year-olds who have their own phones and tablets. That ownership seems young by any standards. In the United States about 10% of children have their own phone by five years old, and 65% by ten to twelve years old. As a mom, I wanted my children to be able to call home without having to ask permission when they started riding with other families often and spending the night away from home. This made sense to me at 12 years old, around 7th grade. Whenever you decide, here are a few things to consider:

  • Start with a limited phone – Our girls each started with a talk and text phone only for the first two years.
  • The phone belongs to the parent – We made this really clear from the beginning. We own the phone and are sharing it with them. It was understood that we’d check on their phone use, their calls and their texting once in a while. It isn’t an invasion of privacy if it’s part of the plan.
  • Only connect with people you know in real life – This rule applied to talk, text and chat in the beginning. It applies to Facebook and Snapchat now. It doesn’t apply to Twitter and Instagram, but we had a talk to make that decision as a family.
  • Talk directly about inappropriate talk, texts and pictures – If they are old enough to have a cellphone, they are old enough to have these conversations. Make your expectations and limits clear.
  • Good to get permission to add apps or have accounts – It’s helpful to be clear about what apps and accounts they may have, and the need for having permission before they add new ones.
  • Smart to have apps and accounts where they do – You don’t have to be connected to them directly (don’t have to be their friend or follower), but it’s smart to know how each works and what’s available there. I was mildly surprised by what’s available on Instagram.
  • Healthy to set daily screen free times and places – In our house this is all mealtimes, school hours and homework time unless it is specifically required.
  • Set a daily time to turn off – In our house this is 9:00pm on week nights and 11:30pm on weekends and vacations.
  • Safe to hold onto the NOT in their bedrooms rule – When families first started having desk top computers, a common rule was to not have the computer in a child’s room. For safety and for healthy sleep, this rule remains a good one for all screens.
  • Fine for child to be responsible for part or all of this – Some families decide to have their child pay for some or all of their phone service. Other families add weekly chores in exchange for the phone.
  • Either way, discuss staying within data limits and plan if they go over – It is helpful that everyone knows what the limits are, how to stay in and what happens (or who pays) if anyone goes over.
  • Of course, important to consider the individual child – This includes how well they follow rules, meet expectations, how responsible they are with belongings and how much difficulty they’re having managing peer pressure and social conflicts.



Leaving Children Home Alone

Cute girl with long hair sitting alone near window

My girls were 7 and 10 years old when I decided to leave them home alone for the first time. They were excited and slightly concerned, so we spent about 40 minutes talking through the details about where I’d be, how long I’d be gone, what they could and couldn’t do, how to contact me and emergency phone numbers. I was going to the store about a mile away to pick up one thing and would be gone for about 15 minutes. After all of the rules and ways to be in touch, they decided they were going to sit on the couch, watch tv and not move. While they did just sit together and not move, they were thrilled with themselves when I got home.

The decision to start leaving your child home alone is a big one. There are several things to consider. The first would be your child’s own comfort level. It makes no sense to leave a scared child home alone. The next would be their age and maturity level. Here are the current age guidelines for being left home alone in Fairfax County, Virginia:

Fairfax County’s Child Supervision Guidelines by Age

7 years and under:
Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.

8 to 10 years:
Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.

11 to 12 years:
May be left alone for up to 3 hours, but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.

13 to 15 years:
May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.

16 to 17 years:
May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).

Fairfax County adds that given the age guidelines, it is up to the parent to make a judgement about the child’s emotional and behavioral readiness and ability to manage medical or other issues. They reiterate the child should feel comfortable alone, have a way to contact parents or another trusted adult, an awareness of what to do in emergencies, and guidelines for acceptable behavior.

I would add that you consider rules about eating, food prep, the phone, answering the door, cooperating with each other and staying indoors.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides additional guidelines: .

You might also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker. It is a parenting book about teaching children personal safety, and it has a valuable chapter on leaving children home alone.

It is also important to know that local and state age guidelines for being left alone vary in the United States, from an 8 year old minimum to a 14 year old minimum.

So all that said, I look at these guidelines, not just as minimums, but as goals. If you have an 8 to 10 year old and haven’t left them home alone, good to at least start preparing them. If you haven’t, consider why not and work on those things. Start having conversations about it, practice being in different areas of the house for longer stretches, encourage your child to make their own lunch or get themselves completely ready for bed on their own occasionally. You might encourage your child to make more daily decisions for themselves.

Many children are still getting car keys at 16 years old, and leaving home for college at 18. To be really ready for these things they need practice at being home alone, at handling situations, making decisions and at caring for themselves. At some point they need practice at being independent in public places as well. Car keys at 16 is free run of the east coast (sorry dad), and it makes no sense going completely supervised at 14 years old to being free run two years later.

As a reminder, in 1979 first grade readiness guidelines included your child being able to navigate 4 to 8 blocks of their neighborhood. I get it was a different time. If your first grader were out roaming the neighborhood now, they’d be the only kid out there which isn’t safe.

The idea now is to start when they are young and make slow and steady progress towards them being fully independent. Staying home alone is an important piece of that process.

How Your Own Sibling Relationships Can Impact Your Children’s Sibling Relationships


Me and Rodney 1975


I’ll admit, I am about to way oversimplify an issue about complex family dynamics. There are people who spend years in therapy unraveling the impact from the next few points. That said, there are some fairly obvious ways your own sibling relationships, from growing up and from current exchange, can impact your children’s sibling relationships. While it may not be as direct in your family, still worth stepping back and checking the big picture.

Your expectations from childhood – How you got along with your siblings can shape your expectations for how your children will get along. My brother and I got along great, and I expected my children would get along. My husband and his siblings, not so much. He is still surprised by the way our children get along.

Your current sibling relationships – Through your current sibling relationships you are modeling how to treat and interact with siblings. How much you keep in touch, how you greet each other, the time you spend together and how you move through disagreements are all modeling to children about sibling relationships.

How you speak to and about your siblings – How you speak to and about your siblings, models to children how to speak to and about their siblings. If you put down your siblings, complain about them, or critique their decisions often, it opens the door for this to be how they speak to and about their siblings.

Your tolerance for behaviors shaped by what you experienced – A mother of three was teary-eyed asking how to stop her children from bickering. Her question started, “I just can’t take their bickering. There was constant bickering in my house growing up…” Yes, healthy goal for her children to bicker less. Also healthy to recognize some level of bickering is normal, and to find ways to lessen her carried-over stress about the remainder.


Competition: Teaching Kids to be Gracious Winners and Good Sport Losers

Children having a sack race in park

I will start here by saying; I want my kids to be competitive. I want them to work hard, play fair, enjoy the process, celebrate the wins and learn from the losses. This goes for their academics and their athletics.

Teach cooperation first – As children grow, having a cooperative nature helps to curb the ugly side of competition. Between siblings you can give cooperative challenges such as, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed to beat the timer,” rather than, “let’s see who can get dressed first.” You might plan cooperative projects more often like washing the car together or building an obstacle course together. You can talk about your family as a “team,” or as needing to help each other out as often as possible. Highlight when children are being helpful or cooperating with others.

Introduce games with cooperative effort – There are lots of cooperative effort board games including Snail’s Pace Race (or Caterpillar Crawl, same game), Colorama, Race to the Treasure, Hoot Owl Hoot, Stone Soup, and Feed the Woozle. Cooperative effort games teach the turn taking, rule following and fun aspects of board games without the competitive component. Candy Land can be cooperative (and much shorter) if everyone is working together to move the blue guy to the end. As children get older, there’s Pandemic, Space Alert, Harvest Time and many other cooperative games.

Introduce winning and losing in small ways – By three-and-a-half or four years old, you might introduce small games with winners and losers. This includes tic-tac-toe, rock-paper-scissors and Hulabaloo which each take less than a minute or two to win or lose.

Talk through winning and losing – As you play these games, occasionally talk about what it feels like to win and what it feels like to lose. Brainstorm gracious things they can say or do when they win and good sport things they can say or do when they lose. Avoid letting your child always win, to learn how to be a good sport loser they have to have experiences with losing.

  • When your child wins, teach them to shake hands or smile and compliment the other players. This can be as simple as saying, “good game.” Directly curb boasting or any dig at the other players.
  • When your child loses, teach him to shake hands or smile and congratulate the other players. Work towards curbing tantrums and visible or loud upsets. It can be most effective to work on this out of the moment thru role play, puppet shows, drawing pictures and asking hypotheticals. There are free workshop on teaching social skills at .

Gradually play longer games – By four or five years old, move to games like Zingo, Go Fish and Uno that take a few minutes to win or lose. Then move to longer board games, such as Chutes and Ladders or Trouble. All along model, practice and discuss ways to win and lose.

Move to sports – As children can manage winning and losing at board games, you might introduce winning and losing at sports.  Again, at three, four or five years old it’s just about learning how to play, how to throw and catch and kick a ball. It’s about learning how to participate in classes and games, and how to listen to a teacher or coach. Actual winning and losing should start small here too. Think relays and races, 5 minute games, not 45 minute games.

Introduce competition – By six, seven or eight years old, many children with this supportive background are ready for competition in bigger sports. They are practiced at winning and losing, and know better how to manage themselves through the process.

Focus on individual skill building, effort, teamwork and progress – During this time and as they move into being competitive in sports, focus on their individual progress and growing skills way more than competition. Highlight their efforts, their hard work, their enjoyment and teamwork all in the positive. Focus children on doing their best, fully participating and giving their all.

Highlight the importance of practice – If your child wants to be better at something, talk about how doing anything better takes practice. Whether it’s improving her swim times or being better at playing the guitar, consistent effort and practice is what gets you there.

Reframe losing as a part of the game – To be able to play you have to learn to manage losing. Losing gives an opportunity to rethink strategies and evaluate skills, and let’s you know what to practice.

Focus on expressing your enjoyment – It might be helpful to start with the end in mind. Here’s a link to a good article that explains that even college players just want to hear, “I love to watch you play” from their parents.

Related children’s books

  • Winners Never Quit by Hamm
  • Berenstain Bears Play a Good Game by Berenstain
  • Sally Sore Loser by Sileo
  • Howard B Wigglebottom Learns About Sportsmanship by Binkow
  • Help Me Be Good Being a Bad Sport by Berry


Nature Walk Ideas by Age

family walking

I grew up in a bird-watching, nature-loving family. We camped for summer vacations and had bird books on the coffee table. My parents still hike out to the middle of nowhere at 4:00 a.m. once a year for the Christmas Bird Count. With my own kids, we have found there are so many fabulous places for nature walks in Virginia. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Any age:

  • Encourage children to make related art projects – This may be drawing or painting pictures, crayon rubbings, making a leaf collage, painting pine cones or rocks and weaving flower jewelry.
  • Encourage children to make a collection – It may be shells, rocks, leaves or flowers. Allow the collecting and help create a place to display. It helps to take a collection bag on your walks.
  • Encourage nature photography and videos – With so many point-and-click options, being a budding nature photographer has no age minimum.
  • Encourage children to use all their senses – Ask how things feel and how things smell. Encourage children to sit quietly in nature and really listen.
  • Bring binoculars and a magnifying glass – It’s wonderful for children to be able to see things far away and very up close.
  • Bring a bug box – This can be a nice way for kids to get a really good look at bugs.  As best you can, plan for a safe catch and release.
  • Bring friends – It’s always more fun with friends!


  • Take all the time they need – When they are really interested in something, it can take 10 minutes to go a few feet. Have patience and let them examine things fully.
  • Point out and discuss colors, shapes and sizes often – Colors, shapes and sizes are  all part of an academic foundation.
  • A nature scavenger hunt
  • Label and then label some more – Nature walks and outings in general are a great way to boost early vocabulary. Label and include definitions as much as you can.
  • Be descriptive – Include lots of details and adjectives in your descriptions.

Elementary school kids:

  • Discuss similarities and differences – Discuss how two flowers or two birds are alike and different. Elementary children should be able to participate with this and it’s good practice.
  • Encourage journaling – This is an easy way to keep up their writing skills over the summer months. Bring a notebook and encourage them to write about the things they see.
  • Keep lists, counts and make charts – To make the journal more interesting, suggest they keep track of how many and what animals, birds or flowers they see.
  • Keep measurements – Early elementary schoolers may be very into measuring things. The simple idea is to take a ruler with you and have them measure flowers and sticks and rocks. This can be a fun thing for the journal.
  • Introduce guide books and teach to identify –  Guide books help identify the bird or plant in front of you. You can use these as you go, or take pictures and later go back to sort through the book.

Middle and high school kids:

  • Encourage more detailed journaling – As they grow, their writing should be fuller and have a shape. I think encouraging writing is up there with reading and math, this is just an easy way to get that practice. This might be an interesting time to focus on poetry.
  • Let them plan the hikes – Planning is a good skill in life. Have them pick the place, plan the snacks and pack the bags (might want to check this last one).
  • Good idea to ban the phones – Aside from taking pictures, nature walks are a good time to turn off the talking and texting. This helps everyone to be present and really enjoy where they are.

Please share your own tips below!

Visiting Williamsburg VA with Kids – by a Former Townie

Governor's Palace

I grew up in Williamsburg, and my dad still lives there, so I get to visit often with my own children. Here are a few ideas for your next trip:

Colonial Williamsburg (and ice cream) – Growing up in Williamsburg, at least half of our school field trips were to Colonial Williamsburg (CW), Yorktown or Jamestown. There were places in CW that I loved to visit and learn about including the gun magazine, the drugstore, and the hat shop. As an adult, I also enjoy visiting Bruton Parish church for a weekday reading service and the court house. Our whole family enjoyed the late night Ghost Walk Tour. Part of the charm of CW with children is how much space there is to roam. Duke of Glouster Street is blocked off to traffic for long stretches so children are free to wander. You can also rent children’s costumes for the day at the Visitor’s Center. Baskin Robbins and The Cheese Shop are nearby.–_Ouy0b4CFVJnOgodeR8APw

Jamestown Island (and bike loop) – Of the three colonial areas, Jamestown is the most young-child friendly. It’s just as interactive, but it’s smaller than CW so less walking. Within the exhibit there is a Powhatan village, the Jamestown Fort and ships to explore. There’s also a museum with a related historical movie. Just outside the museum, there’s two paved loops that are great for bike riding – flat and relatively few, slow moving cars.  My dad would want me to add the Yorktown Victory Center and Battlefields.

The Surrey Ferry and Surrey House Restaurant (feed the seagulls) – So this was the first thing on my list, but I had to move it down because it’s not really a thing. Riding the Surrey Ferry and feeding seagulls was one of my favorite things to do when I was little. In high school, my friends and I would ride the ferry back and forth on a few Friday nights when there was nothing else to do. My kids enjoy this today. It’s simple. Buy a loaf of cheap bread, drive your car onto the ferry then get out and feed the seagulls. Also, if it’s open, it’s worth stopping at The Surrey House restaurant for a southern style, home cooked meal. UPDATE: Sadly, I believe the Surrey House Restaurant is closed.

Yorktown Beach – This is a small, family friendly beach. Often the waves are gentle, so it’s a good beach even with young children.,%20VA&fr=lsrp

Jamestown Beach Event Park – Also a small, park like beach with lots of picnic areas. Apparently now there’s a concession stand and showers which would have been nice (I can’t tell you how often we went home hungry and covered in sand).

Kidsburg (and ice cream) – Kidsburg is a big, very fun playground at Mid County Park. Cold Stone Creamery and several family friendly restaurants are nearby.

Wythe Candy – My kids say stopping at Wythe is a “must” on every trip. Wythe is a family owned candy store that features a long candy counter, a caramel and chocolate dipping area for fancy treats and shelves full of classic and gourmet candies.

Virginia Living Museum – Just a few miles outside of Williamsburg is the Virginia Living Museum. This is a combination of aquarium, wildlife park and science museum all focused on Virginia’s natural environment. Definitely worth the drive!

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum – An interesting museum to explore! My 10 year old’s review: “That was cool enough.”

The Muscarelle Museum of Art – Part of Wiliam and Mary, this art museum has a diverse collection.

The Cheese Shop picnic – House dressing on your favorite sandwich would be all I’d have to say if you’ve had their house dressing. The Cheese Shop is a perfect place to pick up a picnic lunch to eat while people watching on a bench in CW, or to take over to Sunken Gardens (below). Aside from their delicious sandwiches there are several side salads, chips, and desserts to round out your meal.

Sunken Gardens – Just outside of CW and on the William & Mary campus is Sunken Gardens. This is a beautful, flat, open grassy space that sits lower than the land around it. As an adult, it really is just a dressed-up field, but as a kid I loved it.

Williamsburg Botanical Gardens – If you need an hour or two of peace, the Botanical Gardens are a nice place to visit.

Waller Mill – If you like nature hikes with a few hidden playgrounds and renting paddle boats or canoes then Waller Mill is the place for you. There is also dock or boat fishing.

Freedom Park and Go Ape! Treetop Adventure Park – Freedom park offers miles of hiking and biking trails. Go Ape! is fun zip lines and climbing challenges.

Go Karts Plus – If your kids are older, this is a fun stop! There are go-karts and bumper boats and an arcade.

Bounce House and Laser Tag – Nice place to go on a rainy day!

Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf – Putt Putt.

And then there’s

4th of July – Colonial Williamsburg goes all out for the 4th. There’s often an ice cream social in town, the fife and drums play early and a gorgeous fireworks display follows.  This is crowded, but so much easier than getting in and out of DC.

Occasion of the Arts – Every October the colonial area hosts an art show and music festival. It’s a very nice weekend to visit.

Grand Illumination – Every December the colonial area provides live music and fireworks, hot cider and bonfires to celebrate lighting candles in the windows.

And of course there’s

Busch Gardens

Water Country

Great Wolf Lodge

And restaurants that are local and worth the stop

Sal’s by Victor

Pierce’s PITT Bar-B-Que – Yum!

Second Street

Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant

The Whaling Company – This one is on the fancy end, I had my wedding rehearsal dinner there.

Paul’s Deli – A Virginia, a Hot Holly?

The College Delly – Hot Holly anyone?

Your Own Sibling Relationships Can Impact Your Children’s Sibling Relationships

Two Families Sitting Outside House

First, your own sibling relationships help shape your expectations for how your children might get along. My brother and I got along great growing up. We played together when we were little and hung out fairly often through college. I expect my girls to get along. When they do play and hang out, I count that as it should be. My husband and his siblings didn’t get along so well. His older brother and he fought often and never felt close. His younger sister and he bickered often. When he sees the girls getting along, he is still surprised. He thinks it’s just short of miraculous they enjoy each others’ company.

Second, how you speak to and about your grown siblings models to your children how to speak to and about siblings. Read that again if you need to. When your children are within earshot, speak about your siblings in the nicest way possible. It’s great if it’s honest, and it’s okay if it’s a stretch, or just avoid saying negative things so openly. I speak very openly about growing up with my brother, how much fun we had on family vacations and how it was great to be at the same high school and college for a year. My husband speaks nicely about his sister and avoids speaking much about his brother as it’s still rocky.

Third, you may side more often with one or the other based on birth order or other related variables. I was the youngest in my family, and I find myself occasionally siding with my youngest Claire because her perspective makes sense to me. The goal is to recognize the tendency and be sure it doesn’t become a pattern.

Giving Them Space: Being a Child of the 70s

We rented Super 8 today. Great movie, even the second time. My husband liked the action, my girls liked the humor and, I think, the excitement of seeing something rated PG-13. What I appreciated and paid more attention to this go around, was how it captured being a kid in the late 70s. Particularly the freedom kids had to ride their bikes through the neighborhood and to be out after dark. I cherish the memories of being with a bunch of other late grade schoolers down by the creek in the woods behind our houses for hours or playing Ghost in the Graveyard after the street lights came on. My husband remembers starting out at his house with a few friends on bikes in the morning and ending up in another nearby town by mid-afternoon. Sadly, this is unheard of today.

Believe me, I get the whole safety and supervision thing. I really do. My children are well supervised, don’t leave the house alone and have a sitter if we are going to be away for long stretches. What worries me, though, is we have a 13-year-old who, three years from now will have car keys and suddenly free run of Northern Virginia (and beyond, if she is anything like me at that age). She will have this freedom without the years of practice I had, running between neighborhoods and working to solve the social conflicts without a parent looking directly over my shoulder. Think of the social skills that were developing at the playground or community pool between children, versus what is developing now with the limitations of planned playdates and organized activities. Children need space and time to be and to problem solve and to grow.

I’ve only been able to answer this myself in small ways, we let the older kids hang out a good football field away today at a park. Yesterday, they went into a few stores at the mall while I parked myself on a bench just outside. I don’t know the answer here, but struggle with the question often. There are two books that address this issue from very different angles Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Louv and Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry by Skenazy. I think I will put these books back in the to-read pile.

My History Shapes My Parenting

I’ve been contemplating all the parents yesterday commenting on the lasting impact from their own childhoods. There are many ways my family history has shaped my parenting, here are a few for starters.

– My mom stayed home until my brother and I were both in grade school. Then she worked fulltime and managed to also be home with us. She was an elementary school nurse, so she worked during school hours and had most of the summers off. I knew her work was important to her, but I also felt like I had a stay at home mom. I had my first child in the middle of the second year of a doctoral program and my second child end of third year while wrapping up coursework and finishing comps. Somewhere in between the school years and babies, I also opened my first office. While I wasn’t fully at home, my husband and I juggled our schedules and stayed commited to using sitters just 15 hours a week. Seven years and a second office later, we have stayed to this maximum amount of sitter time. Most days I feel I have more than a fulltime job and find myself working at odd hours around the clock, but my girls feel like I am home. I work around their school drop-off and pick-up, am home in the afternoons for homework and early dinners and schedule evening and weekend workshops when my husband can be home.

-My parents were ahead of their time with positive discipline. I remember my dad saying, “if you spank a child, you may win the battle, but you are losing the war.” Their approach was heavy in logic and reasoning. While there are new techniques and some differences, my approach to positive discipline is firmly rooted in how they raised my brother and I.

-My brother and I got along well. I expect my children to do the same and likely take it for granted that they do.

Two New Categories

In addition to the Parenting Answers I provide through addressing the questions you submit and posting our own tips by topic, I am adding two new categories to the blog. In Dr. Rene at Home, I will write about my own family life including my children, my husband and the parenting decisions and mistakes we make. In Growing Up, I will write about my parents, my brother and my childhood in general. The plan is to link these things together with thoughts on parenting and conclusions incorporating current information. This is all stuff I think about that shapes my work, but don’t as often share.

As a bit of background, I grew up in Williamburg, Virginia. My father was an education professor at William & Mary from 1973 to 2005, and my mother was an elementary school nurse. They were both involved parents and seemingly before their time with postive discipline. I have one brother, Rodney who is three years older. We always seemed to get along, but didn’t often choose to play together. Williamsburg was a small college-town, it felt like most families knew each other or overlapped in some way. We grew up in a neighborhood with LOTS of children who were often outside. There was always someone available to play or ride bikes with. It felt safe.

Fast forward, I met and married Troy a year out of undergrad. We were together six years before we had Alicen and another two before Claire. They are now ten and thirteen years old. Troy’s family owns delis, he works far more than full-time. He completely supported my efforts to go through grad school and start my own business. I am now seven years into running Parenting Playgroups which offers parent workshops and children’s programs. At our height last year, we had 180 children in weekly programs. While I work, I still feel like a full-time mom. I drive in the morning and afternoon to get the girls round-trip to school and am able to be home with them in the afternoons for homework. It is all a juggle.

There are so many details I am leaving out of both of these stories, but that is what this blog is partially about.

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