Truth be told, one of my favorite times during elementary school was those last few days of the school year that so many of our kids are experiencing this week. There was no work and lots of anticipation for the school-less summer! These were also the days when our teacher would jettison her teaching time for a host of fun activities, including a little classroom game called “Seven Up.”
The teacher would choose seven students to go to the front of the room. She would then look at the rest of us and say, “Heads down, thumbs up!” Those of us left at our desks would close our eyes and put our heads down, while placing a hand on the desk and sticking up a thumb. Each of the seven in the front of the room would circulate, choosing one sitting student and pushing their thumb down. Once commanded to raise our heads, those whose thumbs had been pushed down had to guess which classmate had pressed down our thumb.
I got to thinking about that game and our teacher’s command when I picked up my first-grade grandson from school way back at the beginning of this school year. While waiting in the car que, I kept my eyes on the door to see when he would emerge from the building. What struck me while I waited was the number of first and second grade kids who upon emerging from the building, pulled out their smartphones and began walking with their heads down and fingers swiping away at their screens. Their only after-school interaction was with whatever they were focusing on behind the glass on those little 15-square-inch devices. I couldn’t help but wonder what the long-term effects would be on a generation that is spending more and more time with their heads down and their thumbs constantly up on top of their screens.
Social media expert Chris Martin, author of the books Terms Of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media and The Wolf in Their Pockets, recently issued some directives to pastors on how they can equip their congregations to use social media. Because social media sits front-and-center in the lives or our kids and those of us who are older, Martin’s directives must be heeded by those of us who are parents as well. Specifically, he tells us that in our social-media-saturated world we must “encourage embodied, personal community over virtual community.” The reality is that God has made us for flesh-and-blood relationships, with the family being primary and our fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ being equally important.
The writer of Hebrews addressed our tendency to check out and go solo when he wrote, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). When those words were originally written, the option for virtual connections didn’t exist. How much more necessary it is for us to encourage and commit to embodied relationships and interactions as we live in today’s increasingly online world.
What steps can we take in our homes to lead our kids into experiencing, valuing, and growing from the kind of embodied relationships for which we’ve all been created?
First, power down. Not only should we set limits on the times and places when and where our kids can engage with their screens, but we must do the same ourselves. A growing amount of research indicates that with the advance of technologies and smartphones that allow us to connect with each other, loneliness is on the rise. We can’t relate to each other when our sole focus is on our screens. Nurture your kids and yourselves into limited engagement with screens.
Second, spend time together. I’m hearing more and more parents say that they have little or no idea how to spend time together with their kids. Could it be that we’ve been lulled into our screens, while at the same time losing our “muscle memory” and ability to simply relate in healthy ways to one another. The good news is that these skills can be rediscovered and relearned as we begin to replace screen-time with family-time.
Third, listen up! One of the consistent complaints we’ve heard kids voice about their parents is that “they don’t listen, and they don’t understand.” Take that as a challenge to motivate you to spend your time with your kids, to ask good questions and listen hard to their answers. When we listen to them, they will in turn listen to us as our relationships are strengthened. Doing this sets the table for us to effectively disciple them into following Jesus.
Finally, talk Truth. God has called us as parents to be the ones primarily responsible for their spiritual nurture. Take a moment to read Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Ephesians 6:1-4 to hear your parental marching orders.
Let’s work to counter a culture that’s losing its ability to focus on each other as a result of focusing on our phones. We need to put our heads up and give our thumbs some rest.