How to Begin Healthy Tech Practices in Your Family

June 2, 2024

What led you to write The Tech Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place?

It wasn’t my own idea, but it came from a friend of mine named David Kenman who runs an organization called Barna. They do research on family and church and media and culture, all kinds of things. And in some of the research they were doing on family life in 2015/2016, they were discovering that the number one topic that came up when they talked to parents about parenting was technology. And Dave came to me and said, “Would you be interested in helping parents think this through?” And my wife and I were at the stage where we were actually far enough along with our kids that I could start thinking about writing a parenting book because frankly when you’re in the midst of it, no one is qualified. But our kids were getting to the end of their teenage years. We made some choices about technology that we weren’t sure would work out initially, but they had worked out. And so I thought, I think I could probably put into words some of what I’ve learned along the way. So that’s where The Tech-Wise Family came from.

What is a tech-wise family as you call it in the book?

It’s a family that has figured out the right place for technology and has the discipline to keep technology in its right place. Or, as I say in the subtitle of the book, in its proper place because I do think there’s a place for all kinds of technology in human life certainly and in our homes. We have a refrigerator that I like a great deal—I like keeping things cool with my refrigerator. We have a dishwasher, I just used it last night. We often think about screens and phones, but technology is bigger than that. We also have a microwave. It’s super useful. I just heat up some lunch in our microwave, but I wouldn’t want to cook with the microwave all the time because the food that comes out isn’t quite as tasty and good for you necessarily, just eating frozen dinners or whatever.

And I actually want my kids to learn something about cooking as they’re growing up and I want to have the experience of preparing a meal. So what’s the proper place for a microwave? It’s some of the time, but not all the time. And then there’s probably some other technology that the answer is “almost never” at home. Does it actually help us have the life we want? So a tech-wise family has thought these things through. And the other thing I would say is that ideally the parents and the kids operate on the same basic set of principles; we don’t have one rule for mom and dad and another for the kids—we all have a vision of what life at home could be like and we’re making choices in that way.

It’s so funny you say that because (and my kids are all grown now) as I think back to even just four or five years ago when they were still at home and technology was a big thing, it’s one thing to tell our kids to set some boundaries and guidelines. It’s an entirely different thing to live by those ourselves, and that’s where I get stuck with that. 

How does being a tech-wise family promote peace in the home?  

I think when people imagine putting any limits on tech with their kids, they think this is going to lead to the opposite of peace. Those conversations don’t go over well sometimes. So I will say a lot of it depends on what you mean by peace. Iff you mean the absence of conflict and trouble, I can’t guarantee that changing your current patterns of technology use will lead to that. In the short run, the quickest way to get quiet in your home is to give a kid a screen. The honest truth, if you just want what we often call peace and quiet, then put on a movie, give them a tablet, or just let them take their smartphone to their bedroom—and you’ll have peace and quiet. Is that the same thing as the peace we’re looking for? I think what we actually want is a place where we’re together. Even when there’s conflict, we’re able to work past it and still love each other because there’s conflict in being human. There’s conflict in sharing a home with other people of whatever size and age and so forth. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, give everyone a screen and no one will interact. But if you’re looking for a kind of interaction where even when we get into conflict, we come out on the other side trusting each other more, I think technology disrupts the process of learning the difficult thing of how to live together, which is the basic work of all home life and family life. 

You’ve got to have a longer-term vision. This is true of so many things. We use tech to solve problems and it often solves problems in the short run, but it doesn’t usually solve them in the long run. So if your kids are bored and you’re trying to get dinner on, if you give them a screen today, it’ll solve the problem for today, but it’ll actually create kids who are bored. And on the other hand, if you work together for a few weeks to work out a new pattern for what happens during dinner hour when you’re trying to get it ready and the kids are screaming and running around, in a couple of weeks, you can actually solve that without screens in a way that lasts and is a deeper kind of peace in the house than just peace and quiet. So you’re basically setting these boundaries, but for the long-term view of sustainable peace rather than just the immediate peace. The ability to reconcile. What’s another thing that happens if you have more than one kid in the house? They fight with each other. What our kids ultimately have to learn is how to get past conflict with their siblings. I think the hardest thing about being a parent is you have to embrace suffering now in the hopes of growth that leads to joy later. And our kids are not at a stage in life where they’re able to do that for themselves. That’s the definition of not being grown up yet: you’re not yet able to defer gratification and we (as parents) have to bear the pain of helping them do that. But we do it in the hopes that there’s growth on the other side.

So what do you mean when you’re talking about technology should be in its proper place?

I would ask, “What’s a great life at home?” I think it’s a life where we’re really connected with each other. So technology is in its proper place when it’s actually helping us connect with each other. For my kids, some of the most meaningful times we had was watching carefully-chosen movies or athletic events or concerts. I remember watching a Coldplay concert with my son who was at the perfect age to fall in love with Coldplay. By the way, a boy’s first love is usually a band, it turns out. And he loved that music and I got to watch it with him. I would say that was a great use of technology. Technology’s in its proper place when it helps us experience the world more deeply. One of our daughters loved photography. She loved going out into the world and finding beautiful things, surprising things, and making an image with a camera or phone camera.

Technology’s not in its proper place when it disconnects us from each other or prevents us from engaging in the world the way we’re meant to as image bearers of God. And it’s not in its proper place when it disrupts the basic task of family, which is becoming people of wisdom and courage. What’s the right environment for it and what’s the right time for it? Two very concrete things we decided over time through a lot of mistakes is that it’s never really in its proper place in a bedroom. So for years now in our home, no phones in bedrooms is the policy. I highly recommend it for both parents and children because it takes over rest, it takes over prayer, it takes over being able to soothe yourself to sleep which is something everybody needs to learn. And then the time our family decided was not a time for technology was the dinner hour. When we sat down for a meal, the phones were not at the table. So that’s one way of thinking about what’s the right time and place. Probably not the bedroom, probably not at the dinner table, but at other times and places, it can be very helpful.

A lot of times we just demonize all of technology and that’s not sustainable. I like that you’re talking about how there are good things that come from technology that help us in our life and even in communication. And it’s not just that technology is in and of itself bad. 

I think often we feel like if we’re managing our screen time and setting up internet filters that that’s all we need to do. But you talk about how making good choices about technology in our families is more than that. Let’s talk a little bit about that.

People often assume my book will be about setting screen time limits for kids. And I often say it’s not just about the kids, it’s about the kids and us. It’s not just about screens and I definitely don’t want it to be just about limits. Parenting by limits is the least fun part of parenting and is absolutely part of it. We can’t get around it, but the worst part and the best part as our kids get older is them helping us see the world through their own eyes. What’s the life we really want? What are the times when we feel most connected to each other and creation? When you think about the times in your relationship with your own children, when you’ve had that Oh my goodness, we’re really living, this is really it, it’s rare that it involves a lot of screens. It often involves being outdoors. There’s something about being outside that can be really great or it involves a great meal that we made or it involves a game that we played. I want us to think much less about the limits and the boundaries (even though they have to be there) and much more about what we are actually putting at the center of our lives in our house. It’s very common to have the TV at the center of the house in many American houses. We decided we wanted to put all the screens at the edge of our house.

Our kids are now out of the house, but the whole time they were growing up, if you came into the center of the small home we live in, we all had to fit into one living area on the first floor. And then there’s a couple bedrooms upstairs. In that small living area, we had a piano. I play piano and I wanted our kids to experience that. And for a while it was a free upright piano. We now have a nicer piano, but for a long time it was a “if you can haul it away, you can have it” piano. So it doesn’t have to be expensive, but it’s an instrument. It’s something you can play. Then we set up art supplies that were always out for the kids to play with. We had books around and we had a wood-burning fireplace. And anything that operated by itself or entertained us on its own was not at the center of our home. We had those at the edges. The TV was downstairs, but at the center of our home were things that we could actually do together and use our skill and creativity and talent. And I think that’s the way to think about rather than the limits we’re trying to set.

I like that it’s not just limiting: you don’t want the TV in the center of the house, but you’re also replacing that with something else. You’re acknowledging that screen time has its place, but more than that it’s saying, “Here’s some art supplies and a piano, and there’s all kinds of things that you can pick up and do.” 

I grew up in Africa and we didn’t have radio, telephone, or television. And as kids it forced us to be more creative. It forced us to develop skills we wouldn’t have developed if we were raised in a normal American home. That has served me well in my career and in my adult life. I have seen the benefits of growing up with the absence of technology. My parents didn’t put out art supplies, but I’m seeing what you’re saying with the art supplies or piano. Having something in that environment that they can do, not just living with restriction, is powerful. 

The world is a collection of art supplies just outside your front door: there’s dirt and grass and bugs and flowers. And not everybody can live in an environment like that, but we’re all meant to. And if you can’t, it’s not your fault. It’s because it’s an unjust world to some extent. But for most kids, what they need to entertain themselves is way less than we adults think they need. But you have to be willing to push through the boredom. We would tell our kids, “Creativity is on the other side of boredom.” So if you come to me and say, “I’m bored,” I get it. I get that you’re bored, but I promise you on the other side of this, you’re going to find something to do. So good luck. Here’s some stuff to work with or go outside and play for a while and I promise you’ll find something creative to do. Creativity is on the other side of boredom every time.

You have 10 Tech-Wise Commitments, and I wonder if you could just run through them as practical ideas? And within them, which ones would you identify as helpful for single parents?

The very first thing is: Our goal as a family is to develop wisdom and courage. What are we after in our homes? I think it’s wisdom—a deep understanding of the world and ourselves and God (if you’re a believer in God), and then courage—the ability to actually do hard things based on what you know is right. Every choice we make about technology should be around this question: Is this helping develop wisdom and courage in me as a parent and my kids? 

The third has to do with time, and we put it in terms of a rhythm. We’re designed for a rhythm of work and rest. I say in the book that we’re designed to have times when we’re very actively engaged, and a time of rest where we don’t have to be so actively on and our devices don’t have to be on. So at least in our house over time, the pattern we developed—and I continue this today even after I no longer have children at home—is one hour a day, one day a week and one week a year. One week a year we turn pretty much everything off, including electric lights. So in our house, when the dinner hour comes, we turn off the overhead electric lights, we light candles, and for that one hour, we’re able to have this restful environment where the screen’s not glowing, the notifications aren’t pinging, the lights aren’t glaring. And in our family, we do that one day a week. Sunday for our family is pretty much no screens, no devices, no power stuff. We do what we can do with our own bodies and the environment we’re in. The rest of the time, even when you do have the phone with you (for work or whatever), it changes your relationship if you have a rhythm of having it off some of the time. The next commitment is related to rhythm: We wake up before our devices, so no phones in bedrooms, and then they go to bed before we do and stay in the kitchen overnight. So we begin our day and we end our day without all this buzzing, glowing stuff. 

Now the next one in the book is hard for people to imagine, but I will say it worked at least in one case—ours—and I’ve known other families that have managed to do this. We actually aimed for no screens before double digits. Up until our kids were 10, they were never in front of a screen. I know that’s very hard to believe. My children are in their twenties and they wouldn’t have it any other way. And they plan to do this for their own children. It can be done. And if you can’t imagine doing that, I would just say before double digits, there’s almost always a better way for a child to learn. There’s almost always a better way for a child to play and a better way for a child to connect with other people. So we radically minimized it and I understand that’s crazy, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

For number six, we decided whenever we turned a screen on with our kids, we wanted it to be for a purpose. So we use screens for a purpose rather than using them aimlessly. It’s so tempting at the end of a long day to turn on the TV and find something to zone out. We just didn’t want to do that. So when a screen got turned on, there was a reason. And it was more often than not to do something together, to watch something together, or learn something together than just to entertain ourselves by ourselves. Number seven: Car time is conversation time. This was maybe the biggest transformation of my expectations. I thought once our kids got to that age where they need to be driven to all these places, it was going to be the worst part of parenting—as a taxi driver basically. And at least for me, it ended up being some of the most meaningful times because we said no earphones, no music, or smartphone/ipod. And I ended up having so many conversations with my kids. I wouldn’t have had it any other way; we just made that a rule. And I was talking with a friend who’s raising a couple of kids and he said, “I have to drive them into school every day. And we have this little rhythm of gratitude and prayer that I go through with my sons as I’m driving them to school.” And I don’t know his kids would ever do it if they weren’t trapped in the car with dad, but they do it every single day and it’s become a big part of their family life.

I raised all three girls for eight and a half years by myself, so I had full custody. There was all kinds of time in the car between, cheer practice, soccer, school, all of it. And their counselor said she would encourage me to just do exactly what you’re saying: no phones, no music, no nothing. In her practice, she has found that kids open up more when they don’t have to make eye contact. So if they’re all facing forward, you’re driving, and you throw out a question, they don’t feel it’s as directed to them. It’s an entirely different thing for me to sit across the table and ask a question. And so along with what you’re saying, I have found that it really opens up communication when you can just be in a car and the objective is not to grill anyone. The words that can come from the backseat as you’re sitting in the front seat are amazing. Hold out hope for that. I mean, sometimes it’s silent and that’s okay too. But over time, if you have that expectation, beautiful things will happen. And I want to add that I don’t think we know how to deal with silence in our culture. We don’t know how to be still. We have to occupy our mind and occupy our time at all times. Sitting in silence sometimes is a good way of connecting.

Number eight: If you have a spouse, spouses have one another’s passwords. And for someone who’s a solo parent, having another adult/a trusted friend who knows everything about your digital life is a great thing. And then the second part of this applies to everybody: Parents should absolutely have total access to their kids’ devices. I have a friend who was raising four boys, and when they did finally get phones around 16, he said, “I’m your dad and until you leave my house as an adult, it’s my job to know what’s going on in your life. And so I’ll pick up your phone.” And he would do it, and they knew he would do it. And it was actually such a relief to those boys to not have to handle the stupid stuff that comes in on text messages from other 16-year-old boys, let alone the real damage they could do to their own hearts and minds if they had unlimited private access to the world of the internet. To know that their dad was actually with them in that was a tremendous relief.

Parents need to have a condition of: I can look at any time. I will look at it often. I’ll help you work with it. Friends of mine have Screen Sanity, which is a terrific organization to help with some of these things. They say to use a driver’s ed model: We don’t hand our kids keys to the car with no instruction. We let them watch us drive before we let them near the wheel, and then they take driver’s ed or we take them out and teach them to drive. Even after they’ve got the keys at age 16, we don’t just let them go anywhere with no rules. And same thing with the phone. You really want to have access and be driving alongside your kid and letting them see how you drive on this really complicated hunk of glass and metal that we call a smartphone. 

Number nine is we learn to sing rather than just having recorded music. And I don’t know how that’ll sound to everybody, and I’m sure some people think I can’t learn to sing, it’s too late. But I just would say, especially if you are seeking to follow God, there’s a group of people near you who sing together at a church—go join them and then go home. And even if it sounds kind of crazy, sing those songs together as a family with your kids. Learn the songs together, whether it’s hymns or popular worship songs or whatever, because there’s something about making music that’s so fundamental to being human. And until the blink of an eye ago, every family did this. Every group of people in the world has made music except us modern people who just press play. I think we’re missing out.

The last one is about the big events of life. In a way, what we are trying to get ready for are the biggest moments in life, which fundamentally are birth and death: when a baby is born, when a person leaves this life. And then the big moments in the middle like marriage, the ending of a marriage, the moments when really big things are being gained and lost—you want to be there with love and compassion and presence and joy and sorrow, whatever the occasion requires. And frankly, all of this is preparing for if life takes its natural course—for our kids to be there as we are leaving this life in old age or of an illness. It’s preparing us should God give us grandchildren—to be there when their baby is born. And all this won’t happen just instantly. You won’t be ready for those things instantly. But if we have in mind that we’re going to be at each other’s side the day that we leave this life; we’re going to be right there when someone’s having a baby; we’re going to be there when one of our children gets married—if you have that in mind, then that actually shapes how you live every day. What kind of relationship do I want with this person to be able to be there at that moment? I end with this phrase, we hope to die in other’s arms. That is, we hope to love each other so much that we’ll hold each other even at the very end. That’s not instant. That’ll be the result of a bunch of choices. Now that can be hard now, but they’re going to be so worth it at the big moments of life.

What do you say to the single mom or dad out there that is like, “I love these commitments, I love this direction. I just know that I’m going to have an uprising from my kids when I start instituting this.” How did you go about that, navigating that with your family? 

First: the parent goes first, so we have to change our own lives. If there’s a boundary you want your kid to observe, you need to model that first before you introduce that as a rule. And then the second thing is, I want to give you a very encouraging word. The word is neuroplasticity, and it means our brains can be rewired. So even in the worst dependencies, habits, or addictions, if we invest in change, our brains can change. As you start to make changes in your family’s life, there’s going to be a huge resistance at first. But then on the other side of it, you and your child will be happier and will see it as better.

There are three steps in any big change of habits, even in the most healthy direction. The first step is disorientation and dysregulation: People get really mad with each other. You fight about things you never thought about before. They say, “I hate you” and all these terrible things that kids say to their parents when they’re feeling disoriented and dysregulated. You just have to hang on because that phase actually ends. The next phase is emptiness. You’ve stopped fighting but you don’t quite know what to do. It’s kind of like silence in the car. And then on the other side is rediscovery. And if you decide on Sundays no one is going to touch their phones, the first few Sundays are going to feel terrible.And then there’ll be a few weeks of hearing “We’re really bored. We don’t know what to do.” We’re just kind of quiet and depressed. And then I guarantee there will be a rediscovery a few more weeks down the road of something to do together like, “Oh, let’s play that game that we haven’t played in a couple of years.” Or, “Dad, would you go for a walk with me?” or “Mom, do you want to?” And there will be a rediscovery. You’ve got to hold on to that. The one final thing I’d say is try to find a couple other friends, other parents, other people in your neighborhood, who are willing to set some similar boundaries. The more we can do this together, the easier it is. It’s tough to do it all by yourself in one house but if you can find even just a few other families or parents who are doing this with their kids, you can say to your kids, “Hey, let’s try this together.” 

I know that there are some solo parents in our groups who have older kids and they’ve already left home or they’re off to college or they’ve started their own lives. Are there things as parents that we can do to foster more of a tech-wise or a healthier relationship with technology even when they’re not in our “jurisdiction?”

Once our kids are adults, they have to make their own way, choose their own way. It’s right that they do that, but they’re still watching us. They’re still watching how we handle new stages of life and new adversity that comes with the later stages of life—midlife and later. And the other thing I would say is attention is the most precious thing you can give any person. And continuing to give our adult children our full attention whenever they ask for it, maybe even when they aren’t. When they don’t seem to be asking for it, they often still are. They’re still wondering, Is mom or dad really paying attention to me? Every once in a while my kids call and ask me for advice, but not that often—but they do call a lot and just want my attention. And so I would say to mostly keep your opinions about technology to yourself, but keep growing as a person and keep paying attention. Amazing things will happen in these relationships as we just keep going with our adult children.


The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place

by Andy Crouch

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