The dadcraft Life: How Andy Crouch wants to help your family keep technology in its proper place.
Tell us about your family.
My wife, Catherine, and I, have two children, Timothy and Amy, ages 20 and 17. There are two times you can write a parenting book. One is before you have kids and the other is after they are old enough that you can be sure you didn’t totally screw things up! Timothy and Amy turned out to be talented, grateful, and reasonably sane young adults. So I felt like I could actually get away with writing a book about parenting and family life.
Catherine is a scientist, and one thing I’ve learned from being to married to her is that science is hard. But, technology is easy. In this book, Tech-Wise Family, I’m wrestling with all the ways technology has made our lives easier. It sounds like a good thing, but I think it’s a dangerous thing for our family in ways that prevent us from flourishing.
Why did you write Tech-Wise Family? It appears to be a lot narrower of a topic than what you’ve written about in your previous books.
It is true that I have tended to take on ridiculously big topics: culture; power; authority and vulnerability. There is a huge topic lurking behind this one, though, in the very broad topic of technology. I think we live in the empire of technology. It promises the things every empire promises, but (as all empires do) at the price of assimilation to one dominant worldview. The empire of technology threatens that you will be excluded from meaningful life if you don’t fully embrace it. That is the unseen and powerful background to everything about our lives in the “developed” world.
On this specific slice of that topic though, I was approached by my friends at The Barna Group who are constantly conducting research on culture in the United States. What they were encountering consistently, is that people know something is not right about the way we are using technology in our home. There is an overwhelming sense of need from grandparents, parents, and children. We need help managing all the technology that has shown up in our homes. Particularly the glowing rectangles that fit in our pockets. That is a genuinely new thing in family life and in human history. I think this is the biggest question of our time: How will people and societies live with these beautiful and dangerous things we now fill our lives with?
Was there one moment that made you decide you would write a book on this topic?
Well, let me clarify the three big things this book is not just about: It’s not just about screens, nor about screen time limits, nor about the kids. That last one is probably the most important. This book is first of all about us, the parents—maybe especially the dads.
The first moment I realized this was a big issue for me was very shortly after getting married, before we had children. I discovered I had an infatuation with technology that my wife did not share. She found it strange and a bit troubling, actually. Often, technology was a barrier to being the kind of husband she hoped and expected I would be.
Now, I have been a geek forever; since I was a fourth grader, actually, when my dad brought home a portable computer terminal from the university where he taught and I started learning to code—something I still love to do. But—and remember this was long before the arrival of smartphones—I was spending a lot of time staring at a screen when my wife hoped I’d be spending time with her. I remember a debate with Catherine when we realized we needed to purchase a second computer so both of us could work at home. The question was, who would get the new computer? I found myself saying, half joking, Catherine, I should get the new computer because you will treat it like a thing and I will treat it like a person. It’s just going to be a tool for you, whereas I will really cherish it. Now, I did realize that might be an excellent reason for me not to get it! But let’s just say that as much as I want relationships to be primary in my life, over and over I’ve found technology getting in the way.
Another experience that led to this book, I think, was parenting my son through the elementary school years. I’ve realized that almost the only thing boys of that age do these days when they hang out together is play video games. His friends from school would arrive and expect to play video games and that just wasn’t an option. His friends would get incredibly bored. They didn’t want to come back. It was painful. It was painful for my son and perhaps even more for me to watch him struggle with his friends’ boredom and frustration.
On the other side of it, my son is now really grateful for the choices we made. We’re not a technophobic family. He has a smartphone now, and so does my daughter. But we’ve taught them that we all have to be intentional about using technology at the right time and at the right place. We’re really committed as a family to determining what that time is and keeping technology in that place.
Tech-Wise Family is a book beyond content filters and screen time limits, but if you could encourage dads with one practical step they could take to keep technology in its proper place; what would that be?
One of the bedrock rules of parenting, which I’ve borrowed from the sociologist Christian Smith, is, “We will get what we are.” To a really alarming extent, our children will model their own choices based on what they seeing us doing. So far more important than limits for the kids are deciding what the limits are for the parents.
Most fathers, though certainly not all, spend a lot of time away from our kids, if only because more dads than moms work outside of the home. Those hours we are with our kids are really precious. So in the time I have with my children, what did they see me focus on? For most dads, I think there’s an incredible temptation to be multitasking. I do not want my kids feeling like they’re competing for my attention with a screen or with something buzzing in my pocket.
What I recommend in the book is a matter of space: As much as possible, it’s wise to have a “parking spot” for all the devices in the house. Unless we are actively using them, that’s where they go. There are good reasons why I may need to use the device, but having a place for that device when I’m not using it—which is not my pocket—is a good start.
And then there’s a time issue. I recommend, at the minimum, that one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off all of the devices in our home. It’s just a recommendation—for some families, this sounds like too little, and for others, like impossibly too much. But for our family, that one hour of a day is dinner time. For families with small children, that hour can be bedtime. The one day a week is Sunday. We just don’t touch our laptops, phones or screens all day. The devices stay in their parking spots. That could be tough for dads that love football! For our one week a year, we’re fortunate enough to be able to take a vacation each year where I completely turn off email and social media and we absolutely minimize use of our devices. Those weeks of vacation have been some of our most formative and memorable times as a family.
Parents set these boundaries. We have to set them for ourselves. I can’t emphasize that enough. We know how addictive these things are for us. And we’re adults. We haven’t had to deal with these devices our whole life. Teens and tweens haven’t had this experience, and they don’t have fully mature capacities for self-control. (I’m not sure that I have fully mature capacities for self-control!) Our kids need to see us setting limits for ourselves, as well as our help in setting limits for themselves.
We always ask: How has becoming a dad made you a better person?
It greatly expanded my awareness of how much I could love another human being. And greatly increased my understanding of how selfish I am.
We always ask: What do you believe is your finest fathering skill?
If you asked my wife and kids, I hope they would say it is listening.
We always ask: What’s one thing you’ve learned from your father?
Integrity. My father kept his word, even when it was quite costly. He had an inner gyroscope of what was right for himself and for others. He had a fierce commitment to truthfulness. And, a fierceness when others weren’t truthful or honest.
We always ask: What is your favorite activity to do with your kids?
To go out for a really good meal. Our kids are just delightful to talk with, and they’re grateful for delicious food. They love it and we love it.
If you want to read a preview of Tech-Wise Family, you can do so here. My wife and I are adjusting our living room just because of reading it!
Postscript: We love gleaning wisdom from other dads like Andy. Meet a few of them by reading their interviews.