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“I want watch video, daddy.”
“I won’t let you watch videos in the morning, Jonesy.”
“I want watch video, daddy,” a little more serious this time.
“Were you listening to what I just said, Jones?”
“I want VIDEOOOOO!”
I try ignoring him this time. It works for approximately 6 glorious seconds. Until …
“Mommy, may you please I watch video?”
Puppy dog eyes accompany the adorable grammar mistakes, followed by requests for “just 3 mindits?”, followed by screams and body tremors. And the truth is my almost 3-year-old wants Daniel Tiger more than we have the stamina to deny it. Or maybe we want a quiet moment, or to cook dinner uninterrupted, or to use the bathroom alone, or to look at our own phones more than we want to curb our kids’ time in front of a screen.
My wife and I have 2 boys and another on the way. Three in 3 years. Anyone who tells you natural family planning works also probably has a lot of kids like us.
Our boys are wild animals, full of instant, long-lasting, beautiful, terrifying energy that exhausts me when surrounded by it, and I miss terribly when I’m not. Right now it’s the latter as I type this from an airplane on my way back to them. But I know from experience that no matter how much I love them or miss them, I’ll be ready for them to go to bed by 7 o’clock sharp tonight.
We face the challenge of raising real human beings in the midst of the most rapidly advancing technology the world has ever known.
This paradox is what surprises me most about being a father. How can I possibly hold inside of me the intense desires to both be away from them and never let them go? If you’re a dad, my guess is you can relate. If you can’t, I doubt this article will be very interesting to you.
The further we go down the road of raising kids, the more of these paradoxes we encounter. Women inevitably face the conflicting desires of contributing their finely-tuned set of skills to the professional world, and their instincts to be the primary caregiver to their children. Men aren’t sure what to do when society tells them to be less like the chauvinistic men of the past, but certainly not the weak, spineless men of today.
And finally, we face the challenge of raising real human beings in the midst of the most rapidly advancing technology the world has ever known. It’s supposed to be progress, and in so many ways it is, but I can’t help feeling the threat it poses to my boys. The threat to their wildness, to what makes them human, to their ability to connect with the Divine in the world and in other people. People who are within arms reach, who they can look in the eyes and learn to read the sparkle of excitement or the dullness of pain or sadness. People who they awkwardly ask out on dates, or confront when there is conflict. Real, nuanced, people.
I am scared they will lose the ability to be bored — the source of all childhood creativity.
I’m scared because I’ve almost lost this ability myself. I was a suburb kid in the 80s, and I grew up outside with my friends making things up. Even in middle school and high school, my friends and I constantly made up new games to play to fight boredom, and those are some of my best memories. If we were growing up now, I have little doubt we’d all have iPhones and access to Netflix and we’d use them every time we felt the question “what should we do next?” arise.
It starts at age 2, and it’s all on our shoulders as parents. This is a big weight. I’m guessing you feel it too. I don’t have full control of technology in my own life, yet I’m in charge of it for my children. I guess that’s parenting in a nutshell: Somehow finding ways to point your kids toward the good path, and hopefully pointing ourselves there along the way.
We must instill and demonstrate healthy habits with technology.
Let me be clear that I want no part of the “kids these days” mantra that plagues parents of every generation. These are the blind statements like “Snapchat is that app kids use for sending nude pictures of each other,” and “the music these kids listen are listening to is just awful.” Both of those statements have a lot of truth, and I find myself tempted to go down that rabbit hole often, but it’s not a useful argument. Kids are the same as they’ve always been, and popular music has been mostly terrible for a long time (except the first couple Boyz II Men albums and the entire Beyonce catalog, of course). “Kids these days” is not what this is about. It’s about how to protect a vital part of our kids’ humanity in the face of a new challenge.
I have learned more about kids than I ever thought I would from my 3 year-old. I’ve learned that their job is to figure out where the line is. They want to know their boundaries, and they rely on their parents to be consistent in showing them where those boundaries are. And once they learn them, they’ll test you again for good measure just to make sure. Toddlers are very thorough in that sense. But the more I talk about this, the more it becomes clear that the same principles apply to kids of all ages. Teenagers are actually asking for boundaries when they act out. Employees, even, crave direction and boundaries (a.k.a “vision” and “culture”) in the company they work for.
But while kids are the same as they’ve always been, the stakes are now higher than they’ve ever been. Mistakes — an integral part of childhood — are now public and instantly broadcasted to everyone they know.
And the pressure on parents mounts.
So at this point in our journey, this seems to be an imperative: We must instill and demonstrate healthy habits with technology. Though their words will never reflect it, our kids are begging for us to show them how to deal with these immensely powerful tools we carry in our hands. They barely understand the impact all of it has on both their current and future selves. They feel out of control without knowing why, and in most cases their habits mirror our own.
Anyone who tells you natural family planning works also probably has a lot of kids like us.
I don’t have the answers, and I certainly don’t believe there is only one right way to do this, but in an effort to point my boys (and myself) down a good path, here’s what we’re aiming for so far in our house:
- Keep it simple — no complicated rules.
- No screens during meals. Meals are sacred.
- Only urgent work or personal matters are acceptable reasons to be on computer/phone while with the kids. If you have to take care of it, explain why to the kids.
- TV is a special treat, not a habit. This one is especially hard for us right now as it’s the only thing that keeps the 3 year-old still for longer than 8 seconds.
That’s about all we can currently muster. And enforcing any of this is choppy at best. But the first step to fighting something is to acknowledge it exists. Name it, and it loses a great deal of power. It’s like that line from Keyser Söze in Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
The prize for this discipline is worth it.
The ability to be bored leads to the ability to thrive in the world. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out in his brilliant New York Magazine article, “What first seems tedious and repetitive develops into a skill — and a skill is what gives us humans self-esteem and mutual respect.” We are able to be alone with our thoughts, which is what developing skills requires. This is largely the point in the fantastic book Shop Class as Soulcraft.
And if skill leads to self-esteem and mutual respect, it leads to community as well. The heartbeat of contentment. We are built for meaningful connection with others. This comes from family, from friends, from God.
The prize is worth it, and the path is in finding and demonstrating the ideal human rhythm for our families. Join us.