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Written by:  Carolyn Jabs
Date: November 1, 2011

The holidays are an ideal time for courtesy lessons. Parents often seize the occasion to teach their children how to sit at the table without fidgeting or how to graciously accept a gift they don't want. But now there's a new etiquette variable to contend with: mobile manners.

What do you do if your child sits down to the holiday feast with cell phone in hand or thinks to ask, "Is it OK to accept a call or a text message while everyone is eating?"

Before you can teach mobile manners to your kids, think through them for yourself. Here are some guidelines for when and how you and your kids should use interactive devices — not only during the holidays, but all year long.

*    Prioritize face-to-face communication. Talking or texting with someone not present during a family occasion suggests that you don't care much about spending time with the people who are present. Encourage your child to stash her cell phone in another room — or at least silence it. If necessary, coach your child in the basics of polite conversation: Make eye contact, ask questions and listen attentively. Teach her how to excuse herself if there's a mobile message requiring immediate attention. Learning to give someone her full attention creates an advantage for your child — and it's a form of courtesy that has unfortunately become rare.

*     Choose the right medium for the message. A recent Pew Research Center study found that young people prefer text messages to calls. Help your child understand that texting is ideal for informal communication but, because it often fails to communicate emotion, shouldn't be used for messages that might upset another person. Disagreements, in particular, should be handled face to face whenever possible.

*     Be responsive. Even when your child shouldn't be tethered to his cell phone, he should still extend courtesy to friends who call or text. Establish rules about how quickly your child should respond to messages. Try not to send messages when you know your child can't or shouldn't reply. And encourage your child to promptly respond to messages from other people, including messages he receives by mistake.

*     Think about friends' needs. Young people often assume that because they are using a mobile device, friends they call or text should respond instantly. Encourage your child to find out when a friend is available so she won't call or text during important events or a family meal. Put a curfew on mobile devices so your child's messages won't disrupt a friend's sleep.

*     Apply universal manners to text messages. Teach your child that saying "please" or "thank you" also applies to texts. Cursing or swearing aren't appropriate in speech, and they aren't appropriate in text messages either. Using a cell phone to spread gossip or bully others is every bit as wrong as doing those things in person. Being considerate of others also means avoiding sending or responding to messages that will get a friend in trouble.

*     Think about strangers' needs. Mobile devices allow people to carry their private lives with them into public spaces. This becomes impolite when it interferes with what others are doing. Teach your child to be aware of how his cell phone use impacts others. Make sure your child chooses ringtones that aren't shocking, offensive or annoying to other people. When asked to turn off a cell phone during a concert, movie, funeral or religious service, your child should do it. Even the light from a tiny screen can distract others.

*     Don't inconvenience others. Coach your child to avoid talking on a cell phone in settings such as elevators or restaurants where other people will have to overhear the conversation — whether they want to or not. Also remind your child not to inconvenience people in stores, restaurants, banks or offices by asking them to wait until she finishes her call. The person on the phone should do the waiting. Better yet, your child should postpone the call or text until she is free to talk.

*     Put safety first. Using a mobile communication device should never create a safety hazard. Teach your child to put the phone away when attending to complicated tasks such as driving, cutting the grass, cooking or skateboarding.

Like most rules, these become easier to enforce if you model them yourself. When you and your child spend time together, turn off or silence your own phone. Remember, too, that the rules about how mobile communication devices should be integrated into our lives are still evolving. Just be sure to start from the premise that underlies all good manners: Respecting others builds good relationships, regardless of how people communicate. n

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.


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