One of the great challenges that Christian parents have today is the challenge of figuring out what responsible parenting looks like in the middle of this technological supernova we are living in. For example, when should your teen get a smart phone? What are the parameters? Who is competent to police those parameters?
So let me begin with the false dilemma posed in my title. With those two variables—smart/dumb and kids/phones—we actually have four possible situations.
- Dumb kids, dumb phones
- Dumb kids, smart phones
- Smart kids, dumb phones
- Smart kids, smart phones
I take it that every Christian parent who is not actively neo-Amish would consider #4 the most desirable outcome, but that they would settle for #3 if they had to. The first option is an option on paper, but is decreasingly available with every passing minute. We will always have dumb kids, but we won’t always have dumb phones.
So parents are most worried, reasonably enough, about #2. What are you supposed to do when all your kids’ classmates have the latest phone in their pocket, and your kid is the uber-dweeb with the walkie-talkie? How do you handle the painful conversations about all this around the dinner table?
Unlike the parenting situations in the 1950s—going to a dance, say—this is a decision with much higher stakes. Are you going to let your kids have a device in their pockets that would give them instant access to the wrong side of every town in the world, and which would allow that access in under 30 seconds? “Here’s your new phone, Billy. Remember that Bourbon Street is only two clicks away!”
So let’s get it down to first principles. I cannot from this distance say what is appropriate level of liberty in your household, because levels of maturity, intelligence, obedience, godliness, and so forth, vary. They vary among the parents and they vary among the kids. You cannot simply say, “Here, this one size fits all.”
So what can you say?
The basic principle of child-rearing is that it is not our task to get our kids to conform to the standard, but rather it is to get our kids to love the standard.The basic principle of child-rearing is that it is not our task to get our kids to conform to the standard, but rather it is to get our kids to love the standard. Ultimately this can only happen in a gospel-saturated home because it is the gospel of the new covenant that promises to write God’s law on our hearts and on our minds. Righteousness inscribed on tablets of stone won’t cut it, and neither will rules posted on the fridge. The only thing that “thou shalt not” does (on its own) is feed and provoke the desire to sin (Rom. 3:20; 5:20). Coupled with the gospel, the law is sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10). Loving the standard is therefore a gospel function.
This is important because if you simply make them conform to an external standard (e.g. “no phone for you”), but they do not love that standard, they are still hanging out all day with a bunch of kids who have smart phones. The world is still out there. Do you want to chase them into the world through your hardline imposition of rules that make no sense to them? But at the same time, if they are foolish, you do not want them wandering off into that dangerous world all by themselves. You have to give direction, but direction about what?
Internalization of the standard is the thing you are after, because a time is coming when every parent will no longer have control over the externals of the standard. If your daughter is 15, and you are having struggles over this issue, ask yourself how many months it will be before she is making such decisions without having to check in with you at all. The parental task is to get wisdom in, not to strap wisdom on.
Now when kids are little, you do have to strap wisdom on. External standards, applied by parents who discipline in wisdom, are nothing more than training wheels. But the point of training wheels is to put them on earlier, and to take them off when you can, as soon as you can.
Too many parents are indulgent when the kids are little—because they are little, the sin can’t do all that much damage. But as the years go by, the consequences of sin grow increasingly worrisome. Teens can get into drugs, into drinking, into fornication, into stupid behavior with cars, and so on. The consequences can be severe, including legal troubles, pregnancies, addictions, or death. When those gnarly prospects start to loom on the horizon, too many Christian parents start applying restrictions. But this is during the time when they should be lifting the earlier restrictions gradually, slowly, deliberately.
And so every conversation between parents and child on this and related topics should be about how the child is doing, and not about the device in question.
By loving the standard, I do not in the first instance mean loving the phone standard. I mean loving the standard of internalized allegiance to the ways of God. I mean loving the whole idea of personal loyalty—loyalty to God and His ways, loyalty to father and mother, loyalty to siblings, loyalty to wisdom, and so on.
Three Diagnostic Questions
So the sum of the matter is this. As father and mother are discussing with one another what their practice ought to be, there are three sets of diagnostic questions they should be asking themselves. First, what is the gospel aroma in our home? Is this a place where the death and resurrection of Jesus overshadow everything? Is this a place of love and forgiveness?
Second, since all these questions reduce to a question of whether the kids have a personal loyalty to the ways of their household, the diagnostic question for parents is this: do you have a personal loyalty to your kids? I am not asking if you love them. Of course you love them. I am asking if they wanted to imitate your personal loyalty would there be something there for them to imitate. Are you expecting unrelenting allegiance from them when what they get from you is unrelenting criticism?
And third, as you instruct and admonish your kids, you don’t do it through abstract worries and what ifs. The issue is not what they might do with a smart phone six months from now. The issue is how they responded to their mom this morning when asked to clear the table, or to make their bed. If the home is crammed full of eye-rolling, sea-lawyering, and back-chatting, then the answer to the phone question is no. When asked what is wrong with smart phones, the answer is nothing. Nothing is wrong with smart phones. We just don’t want to add difficulties when we are not yet handling our current responsibilities the way we ought to. If we can’t clear the breakfast table with joy and gladness, if we can’t get ready for school in a good humor, if we can’t love our brothers and sister rightly, then all a phone will do is make all that worse. If we can’t run with men, how can we run with horses?
As a family we should be interested in passing third grade before talking about ninth grade.