In addition to my scribblings here and elsewhere, I occasionally give talks about the role technology plays in our private and social lives. If there’s a Q&A time afterwards, one of the questions I’m most likely to get will be about how parents should regulate their kid’s use of digital devices. Sometimes the underlying anxiety and frustration is palpable.
For a long time, I was hesitant to address these sorts of questions because I wasn’t a parent myself, and I had enough good sense to know that it was best not to opine on how to raise children if you didn’t have some firsthand experience. Having now been a parent for nearly five years, I feel a bit less sheepish about addressing some of these questions, and, of course, the questions have also taken on a more personal and urgent quality.
I don’t think I’ve got this business figured out, of course. Far from it. But I have a few thoughts on the matter that might be helpful. And, honestly, while these will be framed by the question of children and technology, I think you’ll find the underlying principles more broadly applicable.
First, let’s get a few preliminary observations out of the way. Raising children can be a challenging, thankless, anxiety-ridden affair. Most of us are doing our best, often with limited resources and support. The last thing any parent needs is to be made to feel badly about one more ostensible failure or shortcoming on their part. This is especially true during a pandemic, which has radically restructured household arrangements and routines for parents and children both. So, please, do not hear any of what follows as anything more than one parent, given his own circumstances and aspirations, thinking out loud about these questions in the event that it proves helpful to other parents thinking through these same issues.
The following considerations are generally ordered from those claims that I think are pretty solid and broadly useful to those that stem a bit more idiosyncratically from my own perspective. And, no, in case you’re wondering, I don’t live up to these in my own practice as a parent, but I still aspire to their fuller realization as the vagaries of life allow. Finally, these are, for me, certainly not rules to be followed, but ideals to be daily negotiated in the trenches. Comments are open to all, and I’d be happy to read your own thoughts on these matters.
Resist technocratic models of what it means to raise a child
In my experience, parents are almost always looking for concrete and practical advice to follow, which is the kind I’m least likely to offer. Not because I like to be factitious, but because I think it’s important to recognize how questions about how much screen time is too much, for example, actually hint at a more subtle consequence of the technological framing of the task of raising children. In other words, while we focus on specific devices in our children’s lives, we sometimes miss the technocratic spirit we are tempted to bring to the task of raising children.
This spirit was captured rather well a few years back by Alison Gopnick, who distinguished between two kinds of parents: carpenters and gardeners. Gopnick has a rather specific set of anxious middle class parents in view, but the distinction she offers is useful nonetheless. In the carpenter model, parents tend to view raising children as an engineering problem in which the trick is to apply the right techniques in order to achieve the optimal results. In this view, “parenting” is something you do. It is work. And the point of the work is to manufacture a child to certain specifications as if the child herself were simply a bit of raw, unformed material.
In the gardening model, parents do not conceive of their children as a lump of clay to be fashioned at will. The focus isn’t on “parenting” as an activity, but on being a parent as a relationship structured by love. While the carpenter by their skill achieves a level of mastery and control over the materials, the gardener recognizes that they cannot ultimately control what the seed will become, that much is given. They can only provide the conditions that will be most conducive to a plant’s flourishing.
Of course, any discussion that starts with “There are two kinds of x” will undoubtedly have its limitations, but I think it’s useful to remember that we do not make our children, we receive them as gifts. Naturally, this does not alleviate us of our responsibilities toward them. Far from it. But it does change how we experience those responsibilities, and it does relieve us of a particular set of anxieties that inevitably accompany any project aimed at the mastery of recalcitrant reality. Parents have enough to worry about without also accepting the anxieties that stem from the assumption that we can perfectly control who our children will become by the proper application of a various techniques.
Resist a reactionary approach to technology
In this arena, but may be as a general rule, it’s better to let your choices flow from what you are for rather than what you are against. In other words, when thinking about something like children and smartphones, say, it’s better to imagine yourself working toward particular goods you would like to see materialize in your child’s life than simply proscribing the use of smartphones out of some justifiable but murky apprehension.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s no such thing as “too much time on a smartphone,” it’s just that figuring what that means can’t happen in abstraction from a larger vision of what is good. “Too much” implies a relative standard. Relative to what, then? Is there also “too little”? What would “just right” look like? I don’t believe it’s possible to answer those questions, or questions like them, in the abstract.
The point is to ask yourself what are the goods you desire for your children and your family. With those clearly in view, you can then think more deliberately about how certain tools and devices move you toward the good or undermine its realization. Of course, implicit in this is the assumption that we will have some fairly clear sense of what we’re for, as well as a decent grasp of how our tools can become morally and intellectually formative (or de-formative).
Infants and toddlers won’t be able to deliberate about such matters with you, but my sense is that the sooner you’re able to bring children into some meaningful conversation about this kind of thing the better. Invite them to pursue the good and teach them by example to subject their use of any tool or device to that higher end. In this way we can inoculate them against one of the most pervasive disorders of a technological society, the temptation to make technology an end in itself.
Resist technologies that erode the space for childhood
I’m a fan of Neil Postman, but I tend to have a few more quibbles than usual with his 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, in which Postman argues that childhood (and adulthood) as it had been imagined in modern western societies was tied to print culture. Consequently, as print culture fades in the face of electronic media, Postman argued its attendant models of childhood (and adulthood) faded, too.
Quibbles aside, I think there’s something to the claim that certain techno-social configurations generate different experiences of childhood. It also seems that the experiences of and boundaries separating childhood, adolescence, and adulthood have been in flux. I sometimes talk about this in terms of what I’ve called the professionalization of childhood and the infantilization of adulthood. The professionalization of childhood is related to the technocratic modes of parenting for safety and optimization discussed above. It’s evident in the amount of resources, time, and expertise that, in certain segments of society, is often brought to bear upon every aspect of a child’s life.
So we do well to think about the qualities and experiences that constitute a desirable childhood, one that neither rushes children toward the responsibilities, pressures, and anxieties of adulthood nor fails to adequately prepare them for such. It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but it seems to me that children must be allowed to be children if they are then to grow into a reasonably mature and stable adulthood.
Along these lines let me quote at length from Robert Pogue Harrison:
“It may appear as if the world now belongs mostly to the younger generations, with their idiosyncratic mindsets and technological gadgetry, yet in truth, the age as a whole, whether wittingly or not, deprives the young of what youth needs most if it hopes to flourish. It deprives them of idleness, shelter, and solitude, which are the generative sources of identity formation, not to mention the creative imagination. It deprives them of spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail. It deprives them of the ability to form images with their eyes closed, hence to think beyond the sorcery of the movie, television, or computer screen. It deprives them of an expansive and embodied relation to nature, without which a sense of connection to the universe is impossible and life remains essentially meaningless. It deprives them of continuity with the past, whose future they will soon be called on to forge.”
I realize Harrison makes a number of sweeping claims in those few lines. I’m not suggesting we accept them at face value, but I am suggesting that they’re worth contemplating, especially with a view to the role of technology in these dynamics.
Resist technologically mediated liturgies of consumption
I probably take inordinate umbrage at the little carts with a “Shopper in Training” flag at Trader Joe’s. But, honestly, the “Shopper in Training” thing really irks me. Many of the challenges presented by digital technologies stem from their participation in already existing socio-economic patterns of endless consumption and the effort to initiate children into these same patterns.
To whatever degree the use of a certain technology amounts to participation in a liturgy of endless consumption, I would think twice about adopting it. This one is tough, I admit. But at the very least, a balance of sorts ought to be struck between activities and technologies of preservation and production, however simple or rudimentary.
Be skeptical of running unprecedented social experiments on children
While the social scientific data is still being gathered, analyzed, and debated, it is evident that we are running a society-wide experiment on our children by immersing them in a world of digital devices without any clear sense of the long-term consequences. Whether we’re talking about ubiquitous visual stimulation, unrelenting documentation, networks of monitoring and surveillance from infancy to adolescence, or offloading our care of children to AI assistants, for example, I’m not keen on thoughtlessly submitting children to this experiment.
There’s no need to be alarmist here, although sometimes that may not be altogether unreasonable, but we should be judiciously skeptical and cautious. In practice this means being a bit suspicious about the panoply of devices and tools we introduce into our children’s experience, even from the earliest days of their life. And don’t forget to consider not only the tools that mediate your child’s experience, but also those that mediate your experience of being a parent.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for any length of time, you know this is a principle that is near and dear to my own understanding of human flourishing. In short, I think we do well to respect certain limits implicit in our embodied status as creatures in a material world. I tend to think it is good for our minds and our bodies when we don’t flagrantly disregard foundational rhythms associated with our earth-bound existence. Chiefly, this amounts to finding ways to better order or experience of time and place and human relationships.
In the modern world, of course, we tend to experience limits as taunts inviting their own transgression. This is, in my view, a destructive dead end. Better to see things as Wendell Berry puts it:
“[O]ur human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”
Consequently, I hope to both demonstrate and convey to my own children a way of being with technology which resists the temptations of a self-defeating pursuit of limitlessness and a willingness to receive time as a gift rather than an enemy to be defeated.
Embrace convivial tools
Needless to say, none of this is about being anti-technology. Rather, it’s about being judicious in our introduction of technology to our children. So if we are thinking about what tools or technologies to invite into the life of a family, Ivan Illich’s concept of convivial tools gives us a good guide.
“I choose the term ‘conviviality,’” Illich wrote, “to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value.”
Elsewhere, Illich writes, “Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others.”
Albert Borgmann’s focal things and focal practices would work just as well here.
The point is to embrace tools that generate a deep, skillful, and satisfying engagement with the world, tools which also sustain a substantive experience of community, belonging, and membership.
Wonder at the world that is is an indispensable feature of childhood that adults should fight to preserve. The best way I know to do this is is simply to attend lovingly to the world on the assumption that it has something of value to disclose to us and a reservoir of beauty to enrich our lives. As I’ve mentioned recently, attention is one of our most precious resources and we should do what we can to help our children become good stewards of this resource. So, I encourage myself and my children to look, to listen, to smell, to taste, to touch. I want them, just as I want myself, to cultivate a capacity for literally care-ful attention, an attentiveness that stems from a deep care for the world and those we share it with.
Tell stories, read poetry
Take this one as a kind of added bonus. Good stories and poems do more than convey “content.” By their form, they embody, sustain, elicit, and encourage the very habits and virtues discussed above. To go a step further, I’d add memorize poetry.
Fin. I hope you found this useful. Again, I welcome your own thoughts, critical or otherwise, on these matters. I’m ready to learn from what you’ve discovered in your own experience.