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  • Lisa Popcak

Principle 6: People Before Things

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.


  1. Beyond telling them what not to do, we must tell, and teach, them what we want them to do instead.

  2. We must make the alternative be about connection.

  3. 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

relationships.


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

engaging way.


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.

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