Dad, you are totally awesome!

“Dad, you are totally awesome! By the way, where’s Mom?”

“In the kitchen, bud.”

“Mom, you look really pretty today. I like what you did with your hair.”

It was nice to hear, even if my kid was totally insincere and he was only saying it because it was in the rules. Before you (correctly) jump to the conclusion that the Guenthers have weird rules, let me explain.

We love our technology in the Guenther household. We realize what a blessing from God it is when we can connect with our relatives in the Lower 48 all the way from Alaska via Skype or FaceTime. Mom and Dad love their iPhones and the way it helps us communicate. The boys love their iPad with the educational games and the fun games. We all love the Wii. But sometimes we need to rein it in a bit.

“No iPhones at the dinner table.” That was a rule the boys came up with. And it’s a good one, even though it’s hard to resist pulling it out of my pocket when I hear that little noise signaling a new text message. It gives us a chance to actually interact as a family, sharing our highs and lows of the day—with no interruptions even from Dad’s phone.

But we have some rules for the boys too. First, they have to limit their time on the iPad. If left unchecked, hours could pass while they clash their clans together or pop the enemy monkeys’ balloons. Siri helps us out. “Siri, set a timer for 30 minutes,” they tell her, and she lets them know when their time is up.

But even before they get to play, there are rules they have to keep. They have to complete all the tasks on the laminated page that sits on the face of the iPad (the seventh task is my favorite).

iPad checklist:

  1. Is ALL of my homework done for tomorrow? (memory work too!)
  2. Is my bed made?
  3. Are ALL of my chores done?
  4. Have I played outside today?
  5. Have I spent time with my brothers today?
  6. Have I asked mom or dad if they need me to do anything for them?
  7. Have I told Dad how awesome he is today?
  8. Have I told Mom how pretty she is today?
  9. If the answer is yes to all of these questions then you don’t need to ask permission to play the iPad. Just set a timer for 30 minutes and have fun! : )

Okay, so the last two are really just meant to be fun. But we do want our kids to learn to enjoy the blessings of technology without becoming slaves to it. We want them to learn to use God’s gifts responsibly. We want to encourage them to maintain human contact and not get too absorbed in the games. And everything will be okay—the world probably won’t come crashing down—if I ignore my phone for 45 minutes each night around the dinner table too.

Thank God for his gifts of technology! And thank God for his forgiveness in Jesus for all the times that we’ve misused or abused them! And now, as we live lives of thanksgiving to him for these gifts, may he help us to use them responsibly.

Changes in the way families communicate

I admit that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with technology and the changes it has brought about for our lives. I love connecting with old friends on Facebook. (Look how big their kids are getting!) I hate the jealousy that so easily flares in my sinful heart when I see someone’s fabulous tropical vacation pictures when we are buried under yet another brutal Midwest winter. (I wish I could go on vacation instead of being stuck here shoveling snow!) I love connecting with my kids instantly via texting and Facebook. I hate that texting and Facebook have replaced much of the face-to-face communication that our family used to share.

At the risk of putting myself out there, let me give you a personal example (with permission from my children). Here is a text exchange that I shared with my son, Micah, one day after school.

Micah: Do you know where Ethan is? I am waiting for him in the parking lot.

Me: No. Can’t you text him?

Micah: I don’t have his cell phone number.

Please keep in mind a few things about this exchange.

  1. My sons, Ethan and Micah, had been riding together to their high school each day for two years.
  2. They are brothers. They live in the same house.
  3. During this exchange, I am at work—miles away from their school.

So what did I have to do? I texted Ethan the following message: Micah is waiting for you in the parking lot. Can you two PLEASE exchange cell phone numbers?!?

As I look back at this interchange, I’m not sure whether to laugh or be a little bit horrified. A decade ago, Micah would have trudged back into school, found his brother, and expressed his impatience face to face. How technology has changed the way families communicate!

So how can families stay connected in this digital age? And how can we make time for the most important connection of all—our relationship with Christ? I won’t pretend that our family always gets this right, but here are a few things we strive for in our home.

  1.  Use technology to build each other up. A Christ-centered text can remind family members that they are close to your heart and on your mind. We’ve sent many an “I love you” and “I am praying for you” text. We’ve also texted Scripture passages in tough times and in times of thankfulness.
  2. Don’t use technology to tear each other down. We all need to be so careful what we put out there via social media. Once it is out there, it is out there. Remember, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).
  3. Don’t let communication via technology take the place of personal, heartfelt communication. It is so important to share family meals as often as possible, minus the distraction of electronic devices. Sharing the day’s “highs and lows” at meals is a tradition we started when our boys were small. It provides a rich opportunity to pray about each family member’s triumphs and struggles. (But yes, as our boys became teens, we did have to make it clear that “having to share highs and lows” was not acceptable as a “low.”)

Our world is changing at lightning speed, and it can make our heads spin as we struggle to keep up. But we don’t need to. Ultimately, there is only one thing needful, as Jesus gently reminded Martha (Luke 10:42). I think I’ll text my kids that thought!

Parenting in the digital age

I’m glimpsing 50, so before digital, I first have to talk analog. When 21-year-old Phil and 23-year-old Anna were little, I was certain TV would fry their brains.

Ask them, and they’ll gleefully tell you how I monitored their screen time with a little capitalist system I invented. I gave them quarters they could use to buy half-hours of TV. They could watch each other’s TV times, too, so they got eight hours a week, plus whatever the family watched together. If they didn’t watch, they got to keep the quarters, saving up for a little something at ShopKo.

I thought this system would encourage them to watch TV intentionally instead of using it as background noise. The system didn’t last as long as the mockery of it has, and one child recently admitted they cheated.

Even while I fretted over the frying of their brains, I never found a babysitter better than Walt Disney. Using screens as a babysitter has always been a no-no, and I sinned boldly. Little Anna and Philly watched those Disney movies and sing-along videos over and over, singing and (sorry to say it publicly, Phil) dancing along. They were adorable.

TV has since morphed into every manner of magical machine. My stepson, Sam, 11, was born into this magical world and knows no other. Because my husband, Mike, is digitally savvy, we have a few devices lying around. Sam will play Madden 15 on Mike’s tablet while listening to Bruno Mars on his iPod while following the Timberwolves’ game on TV while texting someone on his phone. He’ll watch someone else play video basketball games streamed to our Wi-Fi-enabled TV—a guy who calls himself Smoove.

But here’s the thing. Despite the deluge of digital distraction, all three kids’ brains remain unfried. Yes, they multitask in ways I can’t fathom, but they still read and write intelligently. They exercise and play piano and know how to cook pasta. I’m certain they’ll find gainful employment—probably with digital media as part of their jobs.

I wish I hadn’t been such an anxious parent with the older two, fretting that every hour of TV would make them stupid, every gram of sugar would give them diabetes, every domestic misdemeanor would lead to a life of crime. Turns out, the kids mostly grew up to be the people God made them.

That’s not to say anything goes. We have the same rules you probably do. No screens at the table. Homework before games. Parental monitoring of websites and TV shows. And every once in awhile, an enforced quiet time: no screens, no music, just people in a room together, either listening to their own thoughts or engaging in the civilities of conversation.

I haven’t hacked into the kids’ Facebook accounts or read their texts, but I can understand when parents do. The digital world is full of dangerous strangers—and awfully nasty “friends” too. Social media tools are sharp swords that bullies can unsheathe in anonymity and plunge deep into our children’s tender psyches. It’s scary, really.

Finally, I guess our parenting in the digital world is the same as in every other world, isn’t it? We pray for our kids every night, every minute, knowing our heavenly Father loves them even more than we do. We explain how rules—ours, God’s—are for their protection. We let them make their own choices and then watch quietly if they have to suffer the consequences. We talk, talk, talk about everything. We forgive them, and they forgive us. We laugh at their jokes and give their ideas serious consideration. We feed them, hug them, tuck them in.

And sometimes, late at night, when we can’t sleep, we grab our devices and push the buttons: “Love you, kiddo.” Sometimes they’re up too—in the next room or an apartment a few hours away—and they text their love right back.

Hitting the reset button

Staying connected with one another and with Christ in this digital age is quite a challenge, not only with trying to get my two boys to put down the electronics for a few minutes but also admittedly for myself as well. Netflix is my downfall (next best thing since sliced bread), and it doesn’t take much before I find myself three episodes deep into my favorite series, especially after a long day of work.

Quite honestly, I feel like most days we are losing the battle rather than winning the war on electronics. Nonetheless, we are all able to see the positive benefits to our family relations, our personal relationships with God, and our growing faith in our Lord and Savior when we do finally manage to unplug.

At a relatively young age, my boys (now ages 15 and 11), were able to make the connection between less time on electronics and overall better well-being. When I’ve noticed that we all have been spending too much time attached to our gadgets, at first my boys will be angry when I start setting limits. We talk about it, and as they stick to the limits and spend less time on TV and video games, they begin to realize they have more patience with each other, sleep better at night, and generally feel better after getting outside more. But that call to “get to the next level” and “see that new episode” is powerful, and I find myself needing to help my family hit the reset button by setting limits more often than not.

Several years ago, I bought each boy a copy of Egermeier’s Bible Story Book and put together a reading plan that took them through the book in a few weeks shy of a year. Reading the assigned story became a part of their daily to-do list, which needed to be completed before TV or time on electronics.

Now that they are older and can read the Bible on their own, I’ve installed YouVersion—the Bible app on all of our tablets and signed us up for a reading plan. In the coming months, we will be reading the Gospels and comparing and contrasting the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We can monitor each others’ progress through the reading plans and remind each other when we get behind.  So far it has been a great way to embrace technology, yet at the same time remind ourselves the importance of spending time in God’s Word daily.

I’d like to say that I’m an organized mom who stays on top of setting limits and helping our family keep Christ at the center of our lives, but the truth is, I find myself hitting the “catch me up” button on our reading plans way more than I would like. But, instead of beating myself up with guilt, I turn to God’s Word for strength and remember that even though I’ll never be the perfect mom I’d like to be, I am perfect in Christ, and he has paid the price in full for each and every one of my imperfections (Hebrews 10:14).

Stacy Tomhave