Keep Technology in Its Proper Place in 2018

Of the many things I suspect my children will both thank me for and spend years in therapy recovering from, the phrase proper place is probably near the top of the list.

On the spectrum from cleanness-obsessed neat freak to junk-tolerant compulsive hoarder, I’m definitely at the neatness end. So as soon as our children were old enough to understand the phrase, I started drilling into them the idea that at the end of each day, or at least once a week, the flotsam and jetsam of our family life should all be put back in its “proper place.”

In a kind of demented version of musical chairs, we’d queue up 10 minutes’ worth of music and target one part of our home. At the end of 10 minutes, everything that was out of place needed to be put back or, if its proper place was in another part of the house, put in a laundry basket commandeered for that purpose. Anything that wasn’t in its place or in the laundry basket by the time the music stopped was to be summarily thrown in the trash.

My “proper place” game, like so much in parenting young children, walked a fine line between effective and ruthless. More cleanup got done in 10 minutes of music-fueled, trashcan-threatened frenzy than in days of halfhearted reminders. And at the end, Dad got a clean house, the stuffed animals were safely back in the bedrooms, and the children were only slightly traumatized. Of course, I never made good on my threats to put anything of real value in the trash.

Finding Technology’s Proper Place

If only finding the proper place for technology in our family lives—and keeping it there—were as simple as cleaning up a bunch of stuffed animals. Technology is literally everywhere in our homes—not only the devices in our pockets but the invisible electromagnetic waves that flood our homes. This change has come about overnight, in the blink of an eye in terms of human history and culture.

The pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it. We’re stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.

When previous generations confronted the perplexing challenges of parenting and family life, they could fall back on wisdom, or at least old wives’ tales, that had been handed down for generations. But the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it. We’re stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.

The proper place for technology won’t be exactly the same for every family, and it isn’t the same at every season of our lives. Figuring out the proper place for technology in our particular family and stage of life requires discernment rather than a simple formula. But almost anything is better than letting technology overwhelm us with its default settings, taking over our lives and stunting our growth in the ways that really matter.

And I think there are some things that are true at every stage of life. Here are six.

Six Technological Truths

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we’ll never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we’re part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awe-filled hours when our children were in middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess.

Leave Room for Wisdom and Courage

If we don’t learn to put technology, in all its forms, in its proper place, we’ll miss out on many of the best parts of life in a family. I’ve had the incredible, perplexing, and rewarding joy of parenting two children through the teenage years with my wife. As our children leave high school, we realize how much of the joy that we’ve experienced along the way, and know today, has come from the radical choices and commitments we made to keep technology in its proper place.

As our children leave high school, we realize how much of the joy that we’ve experienced along the way, and know today, has come from the radical choices and commitments we made to keep technology in its proper place.

We haven’t always made the right choices, and it hasn’t always been easy. What it all adds up to is a set of nudges, disciplines, and choices that can keep technology in its proper place—leaving room for the hard and beautiful work of becoming wise and courageous people together. Indeed, becoming wise and courageous is what family is really about.


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