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Parenting and the Digital Liturgies
I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few different groups of people now about some of the ideas in my forthcoming book. Two things stand out to me so far. First, the idea that the digital age is having a serious spiritual effect on us is resonating with a lot of Christians. The problem is not awareness; what most people lack is the language to name what they can see and feel is happening.
Second, the first thing many people think about after hearing what I have to say is parenting. They want to know how these ideas would shape their households. They’re eager for this, by the way. I’ve been struck by how little “keep your nose out of my family’s business” I’ve encountered thus far. It’s amazing how many people want to open up about their family habits, their parenting strategies, and get real feedback and counsel. The sense that we’re in this together, that we cannot navigate this era while clutching onto our autonomy, is palpable.
Alas, the problem for me when I get these questions is that my oldest child is six years old. The Christian world does not need one more guy with very young children dispensing parenting advice that will probably make him look like a fool or a failure within a decade. Truthfully, I’m not always sure what to say when people ask to talk about this. I have no moral authority on which to stand and say, “Do this, and you will be glad you did.” What I try to do instead is offer some big picture perspectives on my own experience growing up, the challenge that digital tech presents to entire households, and a general sense of what the future looks like.
My parents were part of a large generation of adults that had absolutely no chance of comprehending the shape of the Web that their adolescent children would experience. The technological advancement in a ten year span was impossibly quick. When my youngest sister was born nobody in my parents’ circle was even thinking about the Internet. We didn’t get dial-up Internet until the early 2000s, and by 2005 me and my sister had discovered blogs, message boards, and soon Facebook. This is part of what I mean when I say the Web has transformed from a tool to an ambience. Even before the smartphone, the social internet had developed into an immersive, relationally potent habitat that one could easily spend hours each day investing in. And our parents had absolutely no clue these things existed. You could show them the page and they wouldn’t have been able to discern what was from me and what was from someone else. There was an entire parallel universe that seemed to disappear into the walls.
I think reflecting on this fact is both sobering and encouraging for parents of school-age children. It’s sobering because it reinforces just how daunting—and in some ways, impossible—it is to know what’s monopolizing someone’s attention. And I think every parent needs to embrace their finitude here. You and I are not going to be able to exhaustively know everything and everyone that our kids are encountering through digital tech. Even strong guardrails are not going to fully account for every minute with this technology. That needs to be accepted rather than protested. But there is encouraging news: The next generation of parents, and children too, are going to be far more aware of how this technology is shaping them than previous generations. Even though some technology will become even more ambient and more embedded into daily consciousness, there will be expoentially more resources available for navigating this than there were in the mid 2000s and 2010s.
I suspect there is an odd kind of dynamic at work with regard to digital tech, in the sense that the more omnnipresent and the more “opt-out” it becomes, the more it stands out as something more than a hobby or a toy. It becomes easier to identify these things as part of culture: vehicles for particular beliefs and feelings and habits, not just tools. Similar to how television became an enormous presence in modern American life and then triggered an organic reconsideration of how much was too much, I think the Web and social media will, merely by virtue of how much control they exericse over daily life, trigger a reconsideration.
In the meantime, though, the question remains: How does this technology particular affect households, and what can a household response look like? Here I strongly recommend books by Andy Crouch, Justin Earley, and others, that think about our digital presence in the context of family rituals. Further, I think it will matter immensely in the years ahead whether parents and older kids communicate and share a vision of what a healthy relationship to the physical world looks like. Are the rules arbitrary, or do they just express the normal posture of the entire family toward which things deserve the best and most time? Is there a sense of what the family is living around? Does everybody just work to get to a weekend of consumption? Are school and church and meal time just the necessary price to get in front of a screen? Or do other things occupy the center of family life, so that even if work and school and meal time were disrupted in some way, the family default would not just be every person to his machine?
These are all questions that deserve more intense treatment than I can/should give. For now, these are the places I go to when I’m talking about or thinking about parenting in the ambient digital age.
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