This is one of the toughest principles for those of us parenting in modern times to actively apply
on a daily basis.
In the past, families were socialized to prioritize family time. Children were encouraged to play
with real toys and real friends. These daily habits allowed families to relate to each other
frequently and casually, but also more deeply when appropriate because the routine time
together laid the foundation for deeper meaningful conversations.
Now almost everything is virtual, and of course, this has escalated over the last few years.
Adults and children check in with our friends, and each other virtually. The constant pressure of
virtual availability often has us keeping one eye on our screens even during our “off” hours. We
find a lot of our relaxation time is spent online as well.
Families just aren’t getting the actual real-life interaction time they need to feel connected and
build healthy, holy relationships.
Many parents see this tendency in their children or find that their children are using their devices
in ways they don’t like, or just more than they would prefer, and the reaction is to take their
phones or gaming systems away for a time, hoping that relationships will automatically improve,
that behaviors will suddenly right themselves, or that children will magically develop a Thoreau
style relationship with nature.
What is seldom recognized is that telling a child what NOT to do will not bare the results hoped
for, especially if those results have not been expressed or have been expressed vaguely. Broad
statements like “Go outside and play”, “Think about your behavior” or “Read a book” etc. don’t
give any real, inviting alternatives. They simply express the idea that, at this moment, the parent
doesn’t approve of the child being on a device, however, they still want the child to go away and
busy themselves with something else.
If we want children to develop real relationships with us, friends, God, or even their own minds
and creativity, we must invite and disciple them in doing so in three ways.
Beyond telling them what not to do, we must tell, and teach, them what we want them to do instead.
We must make the alternative be about connection.
We need to make the alternative engaging.
Let’s look at a few examples.
A very common situation is creating the rule “No phones during meal time”. This is a laudable
rule. Research is teaming with evidence that family meals benefit everyone in many ways. But
those benefits do not spontaneously occur if the family is sitting in stony silence or grudgingly
sharing basic facts of the day, or are using that time to discipline or lecture instead of building
Instead, the parent(s) must create an engaging atmosphere where all the members feel safe
and invited to share their thoughts and stories. Creating a pleasant atmosphere helps a great
deal. A simple setting free of distractions allows the family to relax into spending time together.
Setting the standard of only kind conversation with no criticism or negativity toward each other
tells them the behavior you expect. It also helps to come to time together with engaging topics
to discuss, such as an interesting article you’ve read, or a question from a pack of conversation
cards. This allows everyone to share in the conversation without feeling put on the spot or
criticized. Setting up meal time this way lets all the family members know what you want them to
do instead of looking at their phones, creates connection between you, and does so in an
Perhaps you want your children to get outside and play, rather than sit staring at a screen. For a
child who rarely experiences unstructured time outside this can feel foreign, leaving them not
knowing what to do. Using the three steps again, we would have a greater chance of success if
we went outside with them (teaching them what to do). We could connect by taking a walk
together, playing on a swing set together, playing catch, collecting leaves, laying on a picnic
blanket and reading aloud together, or other activities you can think of as long as it is something
your child finds inviting and you could both engage in. Doing this several times allows you to
build relationship with your child, and helps your child feel comfortable doing a variety of things
outdoors away from their screens.
If you want your child to spend time outside of school with their friends face to face you can start
using these three steps by generating list of ideas with your child that would facilitate that. For
instance, hosting a board game night at your home with lots of snacks, having a hot dog and
s’mores gathering around a fire pit, taking them and their friends to a fair in the summer or fall,
or sledding in winter. Plan ways to make it fun and engaging for your child and their friend(s).
Doing it this way allows you to make sure the time with their friend(s) is more fun than just
texting each other, and is safe, wholesome, and encourages them to do things like it again.
These three steps can help all the members of our family to prioritize relationship with people
over things as God has always encouraged us to do.