We live in a culture saturated by technology. The information, promotions, opportunities and noise it creates seem to fill in the cracks of our already-busy lives so that every waking moment is occupied. In the midst of the hubbub, teachable moments for developing character are often lost. But parents who are intentional about finding those moments can succeed at raising kids with moral fiber — and at creating small pockets of sanity in a tech-overloaded world.
You may remember what life was like without digital cameras, iPods, tiny cell phones, video game consoles, high definition TVs and laptops, but your kids don't. So it's easy for them to adopt the mentality that they need the newest techno devices on the market. That's expensive. And in the rush to get their hands on the newest and best items, giving is often the last thing on kids' minds — unless you help them to remember.
It's important to start early — as soon as kids have an allowance or other income — and set standards that emphasize the importance of generosity. For example, one family required their young teens to save double the amount needed for any major purchase. The extra money was to go into savings, but families interested in raising generous kids could just as easily split it between savings and giving.
Another approach is the envelope system recommended by Christian financial counselors.1, 2 The idea here is to reserve a certain percentage of earnings for giving and to limit the percentage that can be spent on stuff.
Either of these strategies slows down the accumulation of new gadgets. At the same time, setting aside cash specifically for giving helps kids to prioritize generosity. After the money is saved, make sure to give youngsters some ownership in deciding where it goes. Encourage them to give to your church, but allow them some freedom to meet other needs they feel strongly about. They might support a child through a sponsorship organization or anonymously buy school supplies for a classmate who can't afford them. When giving is personal, it's easier for children to see that they're making a difference. In turn, they're more likely to make generosity a way of life.
A 2006 Yahoo online poll reported that the average U.S. family owns 12 tech devices, including three TVs, two computers, and seven other gadgets such as MP3 players, video game consoles and mobile phones. Poll respondents said their overlapping use of all these devices adds up to about 43 hours during each 24-hour day.3 Sound like your house?
Unless we make a deliberate effort to unplug, we can literally be entertained all day long. That doesn't leave much room for important spiritual pursuits like praying (1 Thes. 5:17), meditating on God's Word (Josh. 1:8, Ps. 1:2) and examining ourselves (Lam. 3:40, 1 Cor. 11:28 and 2 Cor. 13:5). It's not that technology is bad, but its constant presence can distract us from important exercises that make our spirits strong.
Whatever our normal tech-drenched state is, let's call its opposite contentment. It's the ability to be still (Ps. 37:7, Ps. 46:10, Zech. 2:13) — to be alone with our thoughts and be at peace (Prov. 14:30; Is. 26:3, Jn. 14:27, 2 Tim. 1:7). Getting there in today's culture takes some work, but it's possible. We can start with the biblical discipline of fasting — but instead of fasting from food, we can fast from technology. Pick a week and turn off the TV. Stay off the Internet for a day. Once in a while, leave the radio off when you get in the car. Create some space in your life — and your kids' lives — that's free from electronic input.
Another practical option is to teach kids to be comfortable with silence and solitude. In later years, these can become rich spiritual disciplines, but with little ones the goal is to help them get comfortable with noiseless time in their lives. Start by declaring a tech-free hour each afternoon or evening. Books are definitely allowed in this quiet zone, as are walks outside and time spent on hobbies. A gadget-free hour probably isn't practical every day, but honoring this quiet time often can create in kids a lasting appreciation for a bit of peace and quiet.
It's funny: Our techno-gadgetry allows us to stay in contact with so many different friends that we're often guilty of ignoring the people in the room with us in favor of those we're talking to online or on the cell phone. Furthermore, we sometimes interact long-distance in ways that we wouldn't up close, and intimacy is lost. It takes some intentionality to ensure that real, high-touch bonds get maintained in an age of cyber-communication.
Priority number one is to create time for your family to focus on each other, without the distractions of technology. That might mean no text messaging at the dinner table. (Even better: no electronics at the dinner table.) Take time to look each other in the eye and catch up on everyone's day.
Second, talk with your teens about how they communicate with their online friends. Are they being honest, or are they trying to look like someone they're not? Treating others with honor means shooting straight about your identity.
Finally, kindness toward others also means not taking advantage of them just because you have the tech-skills to do so. Anastasia Goodstein, author of the book Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online, says that the Internet has made it possible for anyone to become a bully. And many are doing so: One third of kids say they've been victims of online bullying; 16 percent say they've done some bullying of their own.4 Clearly that's not kindness, but since it's becoming common practice, you may need to give your teen some encouragement to be uncommon.
It goes without saying that children are most likely to pick-up on these character-building practices if they see you doing them yourself. Make yours a home where character is the core and technology is an accessory — not vice-versa.