Are you a 'tech-wise' family? New book explores parenting, technology
Posted March 6
Updated March 7
How are your choices about technology shaping your children? Are your kids ready to navigate our digital world with wisdom, character and courage? Could your family survive, as a whole family, having at least one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year without any screens?
Andy Crouch, an author, father, speaker and former executive editor of Christianity Today, explores those questions and many more in his new book, "The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place."
Crouch, who lives in Pennsylvania and is now senior strategist for communication at the John Templeton Foundation, will release his book and share his insights at an event at 7 p.m., Friday, at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 100 E. Peace St., downtown Raleigh. The talk is sponsored by Holy Trinity and St. David's School.
Crouch also is author of "Culture Making," "Playing God," and "Strong and Weak." His work has been featured in Time, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
But, perhaps most importantly in any discussion about parenting and technology, he's a father. With two teens, ages 16 and 19, he's been on the front lines of this discussion for years.
I checked in with Crouch by email to learn more about his books and why all of us, including parents, would do better if we put the screens down.
Here's our Q&A:
Go Ask Mom: Why write this book? Were you seeing situations in your own family and other families where technology was taking over?
Andy Crouch: I was certainly seeing technology take over in my own home — and the biggest problem, honestly, was me. I love technology — I think I've bought a version of every device Apple has produced in the last 20 years. I love how much better all kinds of devices have gotten, how much more responsive to my needs they've become — like the introduction of the "add 30 seconds" button that is now the only way I use our microwave oven — and how much more beautiful and engaging they are.
But I also started to feel like all these devices were getting so good, and so absorbing, and frankly so addictive, that I was missing out on life, especially life with my children. I wasn't listening as well as I could — a huge amount of the time when I was technically in the room with my kids and my wife, my attention was actually elsewhere. I wasn't reading as well, or as deeply, as I used to. I was a professional musician for many years, and yet I had stopped seriously practicing music, or even playing it, at home.
It felt like my creativity and capacity for real engagement and love with other people was slowly ebbing away, precisely as the technology got more and more beautiful and powerful.
And I really became concerned that not only was technology a problem for me, but even more a potential problem for my children — because so much that is developmentally essential happens in childhood, and you only get to be a child once. The first two years, and really the first two decades, are absolutely unique physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I didn't want my kids to miss out on the best possible life, and the evidence was piling up, from research and our own family's experience, that if we were not very careful and intentional, we would miss out out on the life that is really life.
GAM: How has your faith informed the way you handle technology at home and the recommendations you offer in the book?
AC: Well, I don't think technology is uniquely a problem for families who are Christian or have other faith commitments. Some of the survey research we did for this book suggests that Christians actually use technology more in the home, and are more concerned about it, than others, so we certainly don't have uniquely good solutions. Some of the families who make the most healthy choices I know about technology are not religious believers. We're all in this together.
But our family's faith has made a big difference, especially in how we explain our fairly radical limits on technology to our children. We tell our children we believe that the most consequential human life ever lived, the life that brought the most flourishing to others, and the life that gives us the most complete portrait we've ever seen of divine reality, was lived entirely without anything resembling modern technology.
Jesus of Nazareth didn't even use much of the technology available to him. I guess he took a few boat trips and rode on a donkey at one crucial moment, but he lived far from the "high-tech" center of the Roman Empire. We have no record that he ever even wrote anything down (writing being one of the earliest human "technologies").
He started his days in prayer outdoors, before dawn, alone in the hills; walked with a group of followers and friends from town to town; talked with people face to face; and sat down to long meals with them.
As a Christian, what I most want for myself and my children is that we would have lives as meaningful and consequential as Jesus' life. And the fact that his life was so non-technological has helped us make pretty radical choices in our home, because we can be sure that when we limit technology's presence in our life, we're not cutting ourselves off from anything that is needed for a full, flourishing human life. We're actually opening ourselves up to quiet, to beauty, to the presence of one another, and to the presence of God.
GAM: As families, we're missing out on the day-to-day connections when our noses are in our screens, but what long-term consequences come from just not being in the present?
AC: The most important thing families are for, it seems to me, is helping to make us people of wisdom and courage. Wisdom is knowing the deep truth about yourself, the world, and God — and courage is having the character to actually act faithfully in response to that truth.
Neither wisdom or courage comes easily or quickly. They come from literally years of slow, painstaking encounters with other people who both show us the truth about ourselves and help us make more faithful choices. That happens most powerfully with the people who know us the best, which for most of us is our families.
On any given day, when you're just trying to get to the grocery store and back without a total meltdown (of children, parents, or both!), handing the kids in the car seats an iPad and letting them play a game or watch a TV show is an almost irresistible solution. It's almost magical — suddenly they're quiet and compliant.
But what you've given up in that moment is the chance to help your kids develop wisdom and courage. How do we handle being uncomfortable or bored? How do we handle being so close to our siblings we love so much, but who also know how to push all our buttons? Those are questions and challenges that require wisdom and courage, from both children and parents.
But if we always take the tech shortcut, we'll never even realize those are real issues. We'll never really grow. We'll never learn how to handle conflict and difficulty or develop appetites for a deeper life.
GAM: Are parents part of the problem here - especially if we are constantly staring at a screen?
AC: Here's an astonishing finding from the research we did. When you ask teenagers what they would most like to change in their relationship with their parents, the single most common answer is along these lines: "I wish my parents weren't on their devices so much and would actually pay attention to me."
One of my mottos for this topic — and for life! — is, "It's not about the kids." That's especially true for the devices that are filling our homes. It's the parents' problem! We are the ones who buy all these devices, after all. And we are the ones setting the pace for how they are used.
I'm afraid that dads, in particular, tend to send the message to our children that "continuous partial attention" will have to be good enough. You can't imagine how much our children want our full attention and know that something's wrong when their mom and dad aren't really paying attention to them.
And I know kids beg to be given devices of various kinds. But that's been an issue for parents ever since there were candy bars in grocery stores. It's our job to set boundaries for our children and help them regulate desires and anxieties that can easily get out of control.
GAM: What's your message for parents and kids struggling with putting technology in the proper place? Is there hope?
AC: There is so much hope, because of what scientists now call "neuroplasticity." Our brains — especially in childhood and the teenage years — are amazingly capable of learning and rewiring themselves. We have all gotten wired in to the device paradigm that tells us to soothe our anxieties and feed our desires with technological solutions. But we can absolutely unwire and rewire those pathways, even as adults. We can learn a new and better way of being persons together.
What it takes is a lot of courage, for the parents and for the children as well. Because creativity requires a lot of courage. I think what we most need is not just boundaries or limits, but something better to do than our screens can provide. Get out of doors. Make great meals together. Play board games! Read a book aloud that everyone in the family can enjoy.
To make room for that creativity, I recommend that parents commit to the whole family having at least one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year when we'll be together without any screens. I say "at least" — some families need to make much more drastic choices.
When you start doing that, you and your kids will both protest fiercely — your brains have all been wired to need your devices every minute of every day. There will be a period of intense resistance. But if you push through the resistance and the conflict, I am absolutely sure you'll start to enjoy one another's company more, you'll start being more creative together, you'll discover depths and talents in one another you never would have found any other way.
You'll actually be learning to love one another the way that human beings were meant to — and you'll be developing the wisdom and courage we need to really be family for one another.
More information about Friday's event is on Holy Trinity's website.