I am sure parenting has always been a complicated business. I’m sure each generation of parents has had to deal with issues specific to their unique time and context. I rather suspect, though, that parents who raise children at the cusp of a technological transformation face a special kind of challenge. It falls to them to blaze a trail through unknown territory. And that is exactly what parents are doing today as we raise our children in this digital world.
I’m convinced the great majority of us feel like we are failing most of the time. We’ve got this deep gut feeling that our kids are spending way too much of their childhoods tapping on glowing glass rectangles. We feel a lot of guilt that our kids aren’t spending more time playing in the great outdoors or reading great books. We feel frustrated that mostly they don’t even want to.
This is easy enough to deal with when they are little and we have a lot of control over their time and activities. “Turn that thing off and go play outside!” But it gets a whole lot harder as they grow older and more independent and get devices of their own. They get to the age where we need to give them more freedom, but then they use that freedom to do little more than tap and play and surf. Most teens get home from school, head to their rooms, close their doors, and just disappear into YouTube and Instagram and a billion digital distractions.
From time to time our parental guilt overflows into action and we decide we’re going to make some changes. We come up with ideas and announce them to the family. “We are going to have a technology basket and when everyone gets home, we’ll put our devices in that basket so we can have a nice family evening together.” It works great the first time, so we immediately tell all our social media contacts about this life-changing discovery and share some pictures of the family having fun together. It only works okay the second time, so we skip the pictures. And, as is usually the case, there is no third time.
So then we talk to our kids about responsibility and spending a little less time on their devices; we make some lame dad jokes about their eyes turning square. But they don’t change much and we ourselves don’t change much. We still pull our phones out of our pockets a few hundred times a day and still can’t as much as wait in a line or go to the bathroom without bringing it along. Why would our kids be any different?
As parents in this digital world, it’s like we have planted ourselves and our families on a beach. Though the water is rising, we have convinced ourselves that we can somehow hold back the tide. But inevitably it just keeps creeping higher and higher up the beach until our best plans, like feeble little sandcastles, are swept away. There seems to be a kind of inevitability about it, that before long we’ll all always be staring at our devices. In fact, it seems like our devices have wills of their own, and this is exactly what they want. They want to dominate our lives. They want to be our main thing.
So what do we do? How do we live well in a world like this one? How do we have confidence that we aren’t blowing it for our kids in some of their most formative years? How can we be sure that our family memories won’t mostly be of us scattered around the same room, each staring at our own little screen? To be honest, I don’t really know. I lack confidence here myself.
Like most parents, Aileen and I have given devices to our kids. While we’ve given them earlier than we are comfortable with, it’s also been later than all of their peers. We haven’t really wanted our children to have these devices, but we also haven’t wanted to socially-paralyze them. Not only that, but their schools have begun to demand them. To be clear, we’ve done a lot of work on protecting the family from the negative things they may encounter online. As far as I know, the plan has accomplished its job of protecting them from the awful stuff that could otherwise pollute their childhoods. I think we’ve succeeded there (so far, at least). But I don’t think we’ve succeeded nearly as well at helping them manage their time—at helping them use their devices purposefully and with self-control. Then again, I don’t think we’ve succeeded all that well at doing that in our own lives. The water keeps creeping up the beach.
With all that said, here are a few principles I’ve been pondering and, in my own way, implementing within the family.
- Be the parent. God made you the parent, so you have both the calling and the authority to lead your children. And, as much as they might fight back, I firmly believe that children truly do want to be led. So lead. But lead kindly and gently, and understand that you can blow it with the technology basket idea only so many times before you begin to erode their confidence.
- Take comfort that you’re not alone. I haven’t spoken to many parents of older children who have a lot of confidence that they are succeeding well in this area. If your kids are six or under, I know you’ve got it all figured out, but come talk to me when they’re 15 or 17. What is relatively easy when they are young becomes far more difficult when they are older. So if you’re struggling, have an honest conversation with a family in a similar age range and I think you’ll hear that they are struggling just as much. That’s strangely comforting.
- Be an example. Most of us hesitate to properly manage our children’s use of their devices at least in part because we don’t care to manage our own. There’s nothing intrinsic to being a parent that gives you the right to watch endless amounts of YouTube while capping your kids at a half hour. Though we hate to admit it, much of our children’s behavior is learned behavior. If you want to know who they’ve learned it from, you should probably start with the person in the mirror.
- Distinguish between different forms of digital entertainment. Watching Netflix is not the same as playing Roblox or Minecraft—one is mindless while the others are creative. Playing Angry Birds is not the same as listening to Audible—one offers nothing more than entertainment while the other may increase knowledge and build the mind. The trick is that both happen on the same device (and sometimes at the same time). So the concern is often not that the device is being used, but how it’s being used.
- Don’t idealize your own childhood. We can reminisce about our childhoods like they were so much better than our children’s. We remember carefree summer days spent doing great and wonderful things. But it is far more likely that we were wasting just as much time, even if in different ways. I’m not sure my summers spent playing with flammables and accelerants was really a whole lot better than another person’s summers spent playing games online. I’m not sure my many hours of reading Archie comics was any better for me than if I had spent that time playing an iPhone game.
- Focus less on time and more on responsibilities. Kids of all ages have certain tasks they need to accomplish, and I think it’s wise to focus our attention on making sure they accomplish what they need to and that they accomplish it with some degree of excellence. Of more concern to me than how much time they spend playing games is that they are getting their homework done, earning good grades, and putting in solid effort at their jobs.
- Give them alternatives. If you take away your children’s devices, you’re now opening time that will need to be filled with something. You could tell them to go and spend time with friends, but chances are their friends are all staring at their phones. So be sure to provide your children with alternate activities—the kind of activities they may actually want to do. Maybe you can even find some activities you’ll enjoy doing together.
I doubt it has ever been easy to be a trailblazer. I expect the people who blazed the first trails across their new lands later realized their trails weren’t all that good. Once they had more knowledge of the lay of the land, they went back and laid better ones. In the same way, I expect the next generation of parents will know better than we do how to lead their kids in a world like this one. For now, I think the challenge before us is to learn what we can about life in this digital world, then to apply those lessons confidently to ourselves and our children. I get the sense we’re all just kind of doing the best we can as we all figure it out together.