tech in our daily lives
and our kids' lives
Welcome back, readers, and welcome, new readers.
The topic for this post seems annoyingly inescapable: the ever-increasing incursion of personal technology into our lives and those of our children, and how we choose to manage it. Living in Christian church community, we are fortunate to be able to sort through some of these issues with our fellow members, but ultimately every individual has to consider and decide what place technology will take in their life.
We’ll start by recommending Andy Crouch’s wise and practical book The Tech-wise Family, and by quoting from it:
We are meant not just for thin, viral connections but for visceral, real connections to one another in this fleeting, temporary, and infinitely beautiful and worthwhile life….We are meant for so much more than technology can ever give us – above all, for the wisdom and courage that it will never give us. We are meant to spur one another along on the way to a better life, the life that really is life.
This time we have a shorter contribution from Trudi, who is in the process of moving from South Korea to Pennsylvania. Do not be dismayed, however, because instead of writing she and some family members recorded a song which is linked below.
We’re also happy to share this Letter from the Galilee written by friend and fellow Bruderhof member Esther Keiderling, who is living and working in a guest house there.
Marianne – in Woodcrest, upstate New York
Kent and I have five children between the ages of five and fourteen, and healthy use of personal technology is an issue that occupies us increasingly as our children get older and technology advances into new areas. There is definitely more technology in our home today than when our oldest child was born – we were late adopters (individually and as a community) of smart phones, and my default mode is skepticism of innovation and technology. Like all Bruderhof homes we don’t have a screen dedicated to entertainment (although we do use the screens we have for entertainment at times, see below), and we don’t have Alexa-type devices or other smart features in our houses. We try to be deliberate and thoughtful about the media we consume, with a general awareness that time spent on a screen (other than for work; both of us are in front of computers for most of our working hours) could almost always be better spent in some other way.
Part of being deliberate is teaching our children how to responsibly use personal technology, since they will certainly have to do so eventually (unless there is some massive Luddite uprising in the next few years). That means that, although none of them has a smart phone* and we don’t intend for them to get one until they finish high school, we will gradually and under guidance give them more access to the internet as they get older.
*Our 11-year-old son has a device for managing Type 1 diabetes; it’s a phone with a blue tooth connection to the blood glucose monitor and insulin pump that he wears. This is a use of technology that is unambiguously good: it allows him to control this disease in a way that would have been hard to imagine a few decades ago, let alone a century ago when it was universally fatal. His phone also lets him text and call us, take photos, and do Duolingo. All other functionality is locked down.
In our house we have the following: smartphones for Kent and me, and a work laptop. These are the uses we have for these devices with our kids:
Spotify. Having grown up in the era of mix tapes and CD collections, having pretty much all recorded music easily accessible seems fairly wonderful. Our family listens to music most mornings before and during breakfast, and often at other times as well. Another good innovation when we’re driving together is “song choices” which we do in order of age, this guarantees that on every trip we will listen, courtesy of the five-year-old, to Baby Shark and Africa by Toto. The older kids have their own playlists which they request while doing homework or dishes.
Wordle. Our ten-year-old doesn’t let us get up from the breakfast table without a collective effort to solve the day’s Wordle. We’ve recently started doing the NYTimes mini-crossword and Connections as well, but that is the extent of puzzles that I have patience for.
Duolingo. The three oldest kids started during Covid and have persisted (they borrow my phone for this).
When we’re arguing about a fact, or someone wants to know how lungs function, or what the highest altitude city in Asia is, we look up the answer online. We also YouTube snack on things like volcanoes erupting or school bus races.
“Digital Delights” is what it’s called when the younger ones enjoy a session of Shawn the Sheep or Bluey on the laptop. We also watch movies together from time to time. This happens more often when the weather is bad or it gets dark early in the evening, but we try to keep it to less than a couple hours a week. A couple of us are keenly aware that there is a new series of the Great British Bakeoff coming soon.
World Cup and so forth, in season.
That’s about it. Any access to screens has to be requested from Kent or me.
We would probably let our kids use screens a lot more if we weren’t living in a community setting with endless opportunities for occupation and entertainment. Right outside our door are lawns, sand boxes, swings, a play house, and climbing trees, and in the evening or on weekend afternoons there are a dozen or more more kids living close by who come out to play.
A minute or so walk from our house are soccer fields, a rope course, a fleet of bikes, basketball courts, and a barn to visit (and muck out on Saturdays) with friendly sheep, horses, chickens, cows, and goats, all of which have adorable offspring from time to time. Our house is full of bookworms, and we will forever be in the debt of our wonderful local libraries, both that at Woodcrest School and the public library with its incredible and bountiful interlibrary loan service. We enjoy card and board games together, and a lot of the time half of our table is covered with an in-process jigsaw.
Another reason limited tech works for our family is that the other parents who are members of our community have basically the same guidelines. My children enjoy their friends’ company when they’re together, but there’s no gaming or online socializing once they’re home in the evening, and limited shared consumption of popular trends. Bruderhof schools are low-tech but not no-tech: the wonders of the natural world and the lives of people in distant lands can be vividly presented to elementary students on screens, but most school work and teaching is done the old-fashioned way. As students get older the uses of technology become more varied, but students are not permitted to have cell phones in the Mount Academy or at school functions (and Bruderhof students do not get cell phones until they graduate).
I sometimes wonder how growing up with limited technology will affect our children as they enter adulthood and meet their peers who have been very online for most of their lives. I hope they will realize how fortunate they are, but also be able to connect to people whose experiences have been very different.
When I said earlier that we would probably let our kids use screens a lot more if we weren’t living in a community setting: who am I kidding, we would definitely do so. I hope I would never give a smartphone to a young teen, but it would be pretty tough to hold that line if all my kids’ friends had phones. If we lived in a city with few options for outdoors activity or neighbors to play with, we would likely find digital solutions for entertainment – hopefully healthy ones. I’m sure there are children who are spending their days in front of screens who will grow up to be courageous and creative. But I still think we’d all be better off without them.
Norann – in Danthonia, New South Wales, Australia
Every morning during the school year, I teach literature to Year 12 students. We begin the year with Beowulf and end with Crime and Punishment. We read and write and think and speak and discuss. We strengthen our vocabularies, improve grammar, and develop writing styles. We Strunk and White our way through each week. We view the characters, themes, and symbols of the novels, plays, and poetry we study through the lens of our own understanding and journeys. We share, we disagree, we respect each other, and most of all, we (hopefully) grow in compassion towards the human experience.
My students read actual books, write with actual pens, type on computers, and don’t have smartphones. They won’t have their own phone until they graduate from high school (which is when Bruderhof youth typically receive a personal device if they wish). For another twelve months they will continue to engage face-to-face with their peers and teachers, learn how to build friendships, resolve conflicts, and escape (for a bit longer) the dual challenge of connection and interruption that phones bring.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning to interact with technology; all of my students know how to type, conduct online research, and build wise and healthy habits around use of the internet, social media, phones, and other tech platforms.
My two oldest sons graduated from high school in 2018 and 2020 and got their first phones when they began university studies shortly afterwards. One of them commented to me recently that during high school he felt somewhat jealous of his non-community friends who had phones, but since then he is deeply grateful for his basically internet-free childhood (our family enjoys watching sports) because of the negative aspects of “social media, time wasting, gaming, not making face-to-face friends”, and potentially “missing out on all the fun outdoors activities we grew up with like fishing, hunting, cricket, football, and conversations around the dinner table and campfire.” In addition, all of our sons have seen the parent-child conflict that technology can create, and are grateful to have been spared that.
My students are the same – they are being raised in families, schools, and communities which prioritize relational, not virtual, interaction. The rules and guidelines developed to foster those interactions might be slightly different for each family, but the end goal is the same.
We are all affected by technology, regardless of our age, and it’s crucial to have ongoing and robust conversation about how it impacts our lives. But more than that, we need to avoid vicarious living and embrace the wonders and difficulties that being truly present brings.
For me, it’s a great gift to meet former students and hear them say they are still applying Rule 17 (omit needless words), and learning to “love completely without complete understanding” (Norman MacLean).
With less words and more love, the best things will flourish.
What we’re enjoying
I’ve been enjoying my family. En route back to the USA, I spent a week with my parents at their home in Holzland Bruderhof in Germany. A few of my eight sisters live in Germany as well and although I can’t chatter in German with them, and years apart and varied experience can make us almost strangers to each other, we have a deep family culture to tap into.
When I was a kid my parents didn’t have smartphones and I’m so grateful for the tech-free childhood I had. We all are. The last daughter starts college this week and the Brinkmann house is officially empty after 38 years. About four years ago, my parents got phones and now stay in touch with their daughters that way. I enjoyed sharing a bit of Korea with them with occasional photos. They experience their eleven grandchildren through photos and videos that my sisters get on the sly or a video call for a grandkid's birthday.
But if a daughter or two is around, Dad puts down his phone (news, science, history...the web is a great provider of further education), Mom puts down her E-reader, and we have family time.
So last week we did what we always do when we meet: got out the family collection of folk songs. Dad got his guitar, Mom her violin, and the rest of us took turns on violin, piano, or vocals. We played everything from Sound of Silence, Tommy Sands’ songs, Nearer my God to Thee, Lecha Dodie, German Lob Preis and more. The new addition this time was Arirang.
Nothing like doing what you love with people you love. I will be living off the memory and dreaming of next time. I recorded a few to help save the memory. Here’s the new one:
Moving: In our last substack I wrote about our family’s move from a tumbledown cottage to a newer home. Here’s our most recent video documenting that adventure:
Walking: The last couple of weeks of Australian winter (usually) means the most beautiful weather complete with wattle displays. (Wattle, or acacia, is a tree that blooms gold during our winter and early spring). I enjoy daily walks with our dog, Bear, to watch the different varieties of wattle bloom. Here’s a video tour of our property at the height of wattle season:
One of Woodcrest’s cows is giving lots of creamy milk, and we’ve enjoyed turning some of it into homemade hand-cranked ice cream. It’s not especially simple: you have to track down the ice cream maker, lots of ice, road salt to lower the freezing point of the ice, get the salty ice into the machine without also salting the ice cream mix, and crank for half an hour, but not too long or you get sweet butter. However, it is fun and satisfying. We used the recipes from this site, both the peach and orange were delicious although both benefited from an extra splash of lemon.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the rest of the summer!